Gophers coach P.J. Fleck opened Saturday’s spring game with Demry Croft at quarterback, and watched the budding sophomore hit Rashad Still with a 47-yard spiral down the right sideline on the first play from scrimmage.
Croft completed his first five passes, leading touchdown drives on his first two possessions. But after a slow start off the bench, Conor Rhoda completed his final eight passes, reminding everyone it’s still a two-man battle for the starting job.
“We’ve got a long way to go at quarterback, I know that,” said Fleck, who doesn’t expect to name a starter until August.
Still, it was a big day for Croft, who showed both talent and poise with a crowd of about 5,000 fans turning out, once the skies cleared at TCF Bank Stadium.
Fleck used an offense vs. defense format, with four 15-minute quarters and running time. Freshman quarterbacks Seth Green and Tanner Morgan both played, but it was clear they are behind Croft and Rhoda on the depth chart.
Croft, who backed up Mitch Leidner as a true freshman in 2015 before redshirting last season, completed eight of 13 passes for 109 yards.
Afterward, Croft said he has no problem waiting until fall camp to see who starts.
“It makes me hungry, really, because there is no complacency even if they name a starter today or tomorrow,” he said.
When spring camp opened, Rhoda seemed to have the edge. He started last year’s game at Maryland, when Leidner was out with a concussion, and helped deliver a 31-10 victory. One of Fleck’s first objectives after getting hired to replace Tracy Claeys in January was convincing Rhoda to return for a fifth season.
Rhoda had his ups and downs during camp, throwing more interceptions than the staff hoped to see, while Croft kept progressing.
Rhoda went 0-for-3 as the Gophers went three-and-out on his first two drives Saturday, though one of those incompletions was a drop by Still.
But after missing a deep shot for Still to start his second possession, Rhoda finished the day 8-for-12 for 70 yards.
“I thought I had a solid spring,” Rhoda said. “I feel like I have good command of what we’re trying to accomplish on offense. I thought I grew a ton as far as the fundamentals of that.”
Rhoda, a former walk-on from Cretin-Derham Hall, has embraced the competition.
“It’s awesome having somebody like Demry, with his skill level, to push me and vice versa,” Rhoda said. “This summer’s obviously going to be huge, as far as us both developing our leadership.”
Fleck has said his priorities at quarterback are “decisive decisions,” leadership and taking care of the ball. Croft and Rhoda were both turnover-free Saturday.
Rodney Smith capped Croft’s first drive with a 17-yard touchdown run before getting the rest of the day off. Jonathan Femi-Cole finished Croft’s second drive with a 21-yard touchdown run.
The Gophers faced third-and-5 on that second Croft drive, when he dropped back to pass and then scrambled 6 yards for the first down. That type of play was where Croft showed the biggest improvement this spring, Fleck said.
“The first four or five practices, he’d stay in the pocket, and he’d get sacked,” Fleck said. “Now, he’s starting to feel it a little bit better.”
Fleck pointed to the alley-oop dunk Croft delivered for the football team’s video, wishing the Gophers men’s basketball team good luck in the NCAA tournament.
“That wasn’t a stunt double — that was him,” Fleck said. “Incredibly athletic, so for him to be able to step up and make plays when plays break down, that gives us a different dimension.”