Even though he towered above the competition, the future Gophers quarterback was clearly a work in progress. Demry Croft’s mechanics needed work. Sometimes the ball sailed off target.
Then Croft’s competitive side would take over, and just when Rockford (Ill.) Boylan Catholic needed it, he’d deliver — a strike, or a hard-earned spare.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a 6-foot-5-inch bowler out there,” Boylan football coach John Cacciatore said. “It’s just one more scenario where the kid constantly surprises you.”
After two eye-popping seasons as Boylan’s quarterback, Croft decided to forgo his senior season of basketball and compete with the bowling team. At last check, his average was up to 190.
“It’s something I take very seriously,” Croft said.
So is football, of course. The Gophers have high hopes for Croft, the lone quarterback in the recruiting class expected to sign Wednesday, on National Signing Day. He’s rated as the nation’s 17th-best dual-threat quarterback recruit by 247Sports.com.
He gave Minnesota a verbal commitment last June and stuck with it, even after drawing interest from Penn State and Michigan State. As quarterback recruits go, Croft is a relative late bloomer. He didn’t make his first varsity start at QB until the third game of his junior season.
“He could be the guy that could lead [Minnesota] to a Big Ten championship someday,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “He’s a four-star quarterback with five-star potential. He’s got height, he’s got arm strength, he’s got running ability.
“He definitely could benefit from a redshirt year, and then I think they could turn him loose in two, three years.”
Unlike other recent Gophers quarterback recruits, Croft chose not to graduate from high school early to enroll at Minnesota in time for spring practice. Philip Nelson, Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy (who, like Nelson, has since transferred) all did this to accelerate the learning curve.
“I thought about it a lot,” Croft said. “And I just came to the conclusion that I wanted to enjoy my senior year and then just come in the summer and give it all I can.”
Finding consistency at quarterback has been a lingering challenge for Jerry Kill’s staff, heading into its fifth season. Leidner will be a junior this fall, coming off an up-and-down season. He was instrumental in Minnesota’s five Big Ten victories, but his 51.5 completion percentage ranked 117th among the nation’s full-time quarterbacks.
For now, Croft isn’t gunning for Leidner’s job. Asked about his goals for 2015, Croft said, “Since I’m not coming in early like previous quarterbacks, just taking 2015 to get as much information as possible and just be a sponge and follow Mitch. And after his eligibility’s up, hopefully taking that starting position.”
Croft had to work his way into the job in high school, too. After a standout year as the sophomore team’s quarterback, he started his junior year at wide receiver. Then-senior Brock Stull had quarterbacked the team to an 11-1 finish the previous year, so Cacciatore gave him the starting nod.
But with Boylan trailing 21-0 at halftime of its second game, Cacciatore inserted Croft at quarterback, and he led the team back to a 35-34 victory.
“At that point, we never looked back,” Cacciatore said. “Demry never took another rep at wide receiver.”
As a senior, Croft passed for 2,011 yards, rushed for 845 yards, and racked up 31 combined touchdowns, with only six interceptions. Croft, who wore No. 1 in high school, has drawn inspiration from NFL quarterbacks Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers.
“I think people say I’m a dual threat only because of my 40 time [4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash],” Croft said. “I think of myself as a pocket passer, and if the opportunity presents itself to run, I will definitely take that opportunity to move the chains.”
Added Cacciatore: “For me, the big thing that stands out is his arm. He’s got a fantastic understanding and grasp of what we do in our offense. To have a kid who stands 6-5 and runs a 4.5, and can also throw the ball — he’s the missing piece that programs often wish they had.”