Conventional thinking says that when a quarterback drops back to pass, his goal is to find an open receiver and deliver him the ball before taking a hit from the defense.

But on Oct. 15, 2016, in College Park, Md., Conor Rhoda was not a conventional thinker. He wanted to get hit.

"I needed to get hit again," the Gophers quarterback recalled.

Consider it his "Welcome back to live football" moment.

"It had been since my last high school game that I truly had taken a full, live hit," said Rhoda, a little-used reserve and scout team QB during his first three years with the Gophers. "Offensive linemen were saying, 'We're not going to let you get hit.' "

Rhoda, filling in for a concussed Mitch Leidner and making his first start since his Cretin-Derham Hall team lost to Woodbury in the 2012 playoffs, did take a hit or two but emerged unscathed as the Gophers beat Maryland 31-10.

Fast-forward to this week, where Rhoda, now a fifth-year senior entrenched as the Gophers starting quarterback, comes full circle to face Maryland again. He's gone from that fill-in starter of last year, to a preseason co-starter, to an emerging leader of a 3-0 team looking to stay unbeaten as Big Ten play opens.

Rhoda might not be confused with quarterback royalty like Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Trace McSorley — he's passed for only two touchdowns and is averaging 152 yards passing per game — but he has been efficient. Rhoda's passer rating is 24th nationally, just behind reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jackson for Louisville and two spots ahead of Penn State's sling-it-all-over-the-field McSorley. He's doing what the Gophers coaching staff is asking him.

"The biggest thing is the experience, and he's been getting better every day in practice," Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. "You couldn't ask for a guy who works harder than him and more dedicated to his craft than he is. I told him the other day, 'I wish I could've had you four years ago. I love the way you work.' "

Cretin roots

The person who had Rhoda under his wing five years ago was Mike Scanlan, then the Cretin-Derham Hall coach. Scanlan saw Rhoda dream big and go after it.

"It sounds cliché, but he's persevered," Scanlan said. "He had a goal: He wanted to play big-time football in a Division I program. He stuck with it."

To get to that point with the Gophers, though, Rhoda, a walk-on, had to wait … and wait … and wait some more. His only meaningful playing time under the Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys regime came in that Maryland game last year. And Claeys, before he was fired, didn't plan on bringing him back.

"It's such a crapshoot, especially if you're coming in and you're not their guy," Scanlan said. "Being a preferred walk-on or a walk-on, that sounds great, but if they're feeding somebody, got somebody on scholarship, it's gonna take them a long time to admit that they have chosen the wrong guy and give a walk-on the opportunity to succeed."

How certain was it last year that Rhoda was done with the Gophers? At last season's final home game, the fourth-year player was honored on Senior Day, taking what was thought to be a final bow in front of the TCF Bank Stadium fans.

Becoming a leader

When Gophers coach P.J. Fleck replaced Claeys, he convinced Rhoda to take a U-turn. And since then, the QB's leadership skills have grown.

"Oh, man. It's been incredible," senior tight end Nate Wozniak said. "He's an awesome leader for us, on and off the field. … He's always been a confident guy, but you can tell, though, the way he plays that he's really going to step it up and be the key guy in key situations."

Rhoda sees it more as gaining confidence through experience.

"My skill level and my development — knowing defenses and how to prepare to play defenses and how to study, has improved a lot," he said, comparing his play now to last year's Maryland game. "That being my first true experience starting a game, playing meaningful time in a game, and realizing that, hey, this isn't just a practice. That was the biggest thing."

Staying upright

Though not known for his running — he has eight carries for 22 yards — Rhoda has avoided taking sacks. Opponents have only one against the Gophers, by Middle Tennessee, on Rhoda. Ciarrocca was waiting to see Rhoda improve his pocket command, and he got just that in the 48-14 victory at Oregon State.

"He really hadn't done it consistently yet, even in practice," the offensive coordinator said. "There were some spurts of it, but I knew it wasn't an instinct yet. That was one of the things that jumped out at me when I watched the Oregon State film. He was very decisive when to pull the ball down and run."

Added left tackle Donnell Greene: "He's comfortable in the pocket, and we just got to make sure he's comfortable at all times."

This year, Rhoda is content with avoiding those hits. But he will always have Maryland in 2016, when a couple of hits let him feel football again.

"I remember there being a couple hits, where I was in the pocket and took a big blow after throwing it," he said. "I was thinking, 'OK, this is the Big Ten now.' "