A question about freshman quarterback Demry Croft sent Jerry Kill over the edge this week, literally, as the Gophers football coach bent down to lean on the lectern before launching into another defense of Mitch Leidner.
“Good thing [Croft’s from] out of state,” Kill said, smiling. “Because being an in-state quarterback, I’m telling you, that poor kid [Leidner]. I mean, he’s taking a beating, and he’s not a pro player, you know what I mean?”
Yes, public opinion aside, Leidner remains the Gophers’ undisputed starter. The junior from Lakeville South has a 52.5 completion percentage, ranking 108th among the nation’s full-time quarterbacks, but he overcame his struggles Saturday to deliver a game-saving drive at Colorado State.
Still, fans are growing curious about Croft, a native of Rockford, Ill., who drew repeated praise from Kill throughout training camp.
Saturday only added to the intrigue. Croft lined up with the second-team offense during warmups. Chris Streveler spelled Leidner for a handful of plays during the game, once again, without throwing a pass.
Kill said he was “embarrassed” with the first-half offense. Just before the second-half kickoff, the camera showed him removing his headset to speak to Croft. Was the coach close to pulling the redshirt right there?
The Gophers quickly quieted the speculation. Drew Wolitarsky took a bubble screen from Leidner and sprinted 38 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. The offense hit another rut, but Leidner restored order with the kind of drive coaches expect a veteran to lead. It bought the Gophers at least a little more time to continue developing Croft behind the scenes.
Kill told KFAN (100.3-FM) on Thursday, “The most critical decision we have to make” is whether to pull Croft’s redshirt. The other top options behind Leidner are Streveler, and Jacques Perra, a walk-on from Roseville who redshirted last season.
Last winter, recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said the 6-5, 200-pound Croft “could be the guy that could lead [Minnesota] to a Big Ten championship someday. He’s a four-star quarterback with five-star potential. He’s got height, he’s got arm strength, he’s got running ability.”
But Lemming also said: “He definitely could benefit from a redshirt year.”
Croft committed to the Gophers after visiting one of their camps in June 2014. He had no other Power Five conference scholarship offers, with his best other offers coming from the Mid-American Conference — Northern Illinois, Buffalo, Kent State, etc. Croft drew interest from Michigan State and Penn State into his senior year, but stuck with the Gophers.
He was a late bloomer, a quarterback who shifted to receiver to start his junior year at Boylan High School. With the team trailing its second game 21-0 at halftime, Croft moved back to quarterback and led the team to a 35-34 victory. Last fall, as a senior, he passed for 2,011 yards and added 845 on the ground, racking up 31 touchdowns.
“He throws a beautiful football. He’s got plenty of arm strength” Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said this week. “He’s certainly a plus-athlete for the position.”
But Helmholdt said the questions with Croft are, “Can he recognize coverages? Can he go through his progressions? Can he do the things necessary to be successful at the quarterback position in the Big Ten? We don’t know because there were times where he failed to show that [in high school]. Those were the concerns.”
Croft enrolled at Minnesota this summer, unlike Leidner and Streveler, who both enrolled in January of their respective recruiting years, allowing them to go through spring practice.
But it didn’t take long for Croft to make an impression. In August, Kill repeatedly compared his cool, confident, even-keeled demeanor to Teddy Bridgewater’s.
After defending Leidner this week, Kill took a moment to answer the question about Croft.
“The development is very good,” Kill said. “He’s athletic. He throws it very well and gets it out of his hands quick. He has all the talent. He’s put a little weight on. He’s slight, but he can throw the ball, no question. And he can run it, all those kinds of things.
“But he’s still learning,” Kill cautioned. “It’s not easy to do — just go out there and play. Things move a lot harder and faster in a game. But is he progressing, and are we giving him a lot of reps in practice? Yeah, you bet because after Ohio State last year, you’d better have somebody ready to go.”
The Buckeyes used three quarterbacks because of injuries during last season’s national title run.
“[Croft] is a guy that has stepped up and has gotten better every week,” Kill said. “There’s no question.”