Apparently, Wolfgang Pauli never coached college football, never had a complicated quarterback decision to make. Because if he had, the 20th century theoretical physicist might not have come up with his Pauli Exclusion Principle, which boiled down to layman’s terms says, “Two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”
P.J. Fleck would beg to differ, because he’ll have two quarterbacks trying to occupy one spot.
The Gophers football coach declared “they’re both the starter” a couple of weeks ago when talking about senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft. Though one actually will take the first snap under center in Thursday’s season opener — Wolfgang was right, after all — both quarterbacks will play against Buffalo.
Fleck gave several reasons for his decision, not the least of which is that Rhoda has one start and Croft none. That lack of experience means Fleck isn’t sure what he’ll get from either, though he has enthusiastically pointed to their improvement in training camp.
“This gives both guys an opportunity to show what they can do,” said Fleck, who didn’t give specifics on who will play and when. “How do they run our system?”
So how well do these two-quarterback systems work? There are examples of the good, the bad and the inconclusive throughout college football history.
Last year, Notre Dame tried a platoon system that contributed to disastrous results for coach Brian Kelly.
Kelly found out quickly how picking two QBs can ruffle feathers. His plan seemed doomed from the start, especially when DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire had these comments on media day:
“My whole goal is to turn chicken crap into chicken salad,” Zaire said.
“There’s supposed to be one quarterback on the field at one time,” Kizer said.
Kizer eventually won the job, but the Fighting Irish went 4-8. Kizer left early for the NFL, and Zaire transferred to Florida where — get this — he just lost a three-way battle to be the Gators’ starter.
Not every complicated QB situation sinks a team. Urban Meyer won a national title in 2006 at Florida with a rotation, and another in 2014 at Ohio State after two quarterbacks went down because of injuries. Granted, he did have the luxury of NFL-ready talent surrounding them.
Notre Dame’s season showed that if both QBs don’t buy in to the job share, there could be problems. So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case with the Gophers.
“It’s really a relationship that we’re comfortable with. We bring out the best in each other,” said Rhoda, who was Mitch Leidner’s backup last year while Croft took a redshirt season.
“… We’re both in a spot now where we need to take over this team. It’s a little bit different of an idea, doing it together.”
Said Croft: “It’s pretty fun, actually, working together out on the field and in the film room. It’s great that we’re making each other better and the team better.”
Nothing new for U
The Gophers have used a two-QB system many times, most recently in 2013. Sophomore Philip Nelson began the season as the starter, was injured and ended up giving way to Leidner, then a freshman. Nelson recovered and led a four-game winning streak, but then Minnesota’s offense dried up in losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
Jim Zebrowski was the quarterbacks coach at the time, and now he has the same job with Buffalo, Minnesota’s opponent Thursday. He saw the two-QB system work initially, but noted the negatives of a position battle.
“If you’re playing, ‘Who’s the leader of the team?,’ that’s always a certain drawback,” he said. “… But if you can’t make a decision, that means both those kids have done well enough to earn it. They should both play.”
Coaches planned for Nelson and Leidner to split time in the Texas Bowl, but Nelson struggled mightily, going 2-for-7 for 18 yards in a 21-17 loss.
Leidner threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead a rally that night, putting himself in position to take the job from Nelson going into 2014. But that competition never restarted; Nelson transferred less than a month after the game.
After three seasons of nearly all Leidner, all the time, uncertainty has returned. Both Rhoda and Croft have attempted only 17 passes in their Gophers careers.
Rhoda completed seven of 15 passes in his lone start, subbing for an injured Leidner, at Maryland last fall for 82 yards and a touchdown — and the Gophers won 31-10. He attempted two other throws during brief stints in four other games. Croft saw action in three games in 2015 as a true freshman, completing seven of 17 passes for 34 yards, before redshirting last season behind Leidner and Rhoda.
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz faced a similar situation as Fleck during training camp this month, when sophomore Nate Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers split reps. Ferentz settled on Stanley by a nose.
“Basically, it was a feel,” he said. “We’re going with Nate and doing it enthusiastically.”
Fleck said he has learned from his first year at Western Michigan, when freshman Zach Terrell eventually seized the starting job after splitting time.
“The biggest thing I learned from that is however we say we’re going to do it, leave it that way and don’t let the emotions change it,” said Fleck, whose Broncos went 1-11 that season. “Year 1, I was pretty emotional, being a first-time head coach and playing two quarterbacks.”
With that in mind, don’t expect Fleck to have a quick hook with either Rhoda or Croft. He knows he’ll need both to be available for the demands of a Big Ten season.
“If I think both of these guys are going to play perfect football by putting them in the game, and motivate by fear — if you make a mistake, you’re out — then I’m not a great leader,” Fleck said. “I want to be able to make sure they can play, run the system, and if they make a mistake, have an opportunity to respond to the mistake. That’s fair, and that’s what they both earned.”
Eventually, history and Pauli’s Exclusion Principle show us, one quarterback will fill that one spot. Thursday’s game will help play a part in deciding that.
“Nothing is more telling when those guys get under the lights and the stands are filled,” said Terrell, a four-year starter who led Western Michigan to a Cotton Bowl appearance last season. “You really get to see who the gamers are and who they really trust.’’