Troy Stoudermire is enjoying his growing reputation for big hits -- his well-timed collision with freshman Marcus Jones was the biggest crunch of Saturday's spring game -- but there's one target he can't touch.

"Man, I would love to hit MarQueis [Gray] when he starts running like that," the senior cornerback said, narrowing his eyes as if imagining the blow.

Then he grins. "Just kidding, just kidding -- MarQueis is our guy," Stoudermire joked.

Can't blame defenders for feeling challenged by the Gophers' quarterback-to-be, though. By Stoudermire's judgment, Gray has taken huge strides in the past four weeks toward fulfilling the promise Minnesota fans have anticipated since his arrival three years ago, and not just because of his evident aptitude for turning scrambles into yards.

"MarQueis is turning into one of the dangerous quarterbacks of the Big Ten," said the man who has tried to cover Gray's throws in practice. "He's keeping the defense off balance. And his passes are way more accurate than they were last year."

It was a little hard to document Gray's progress on Saturday, considering the limited amount of offense the Gophers revealed for the 2,500 or so fans on hand and the Big Ten Network's TV cameras -- "our vanilla package," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called it -- and the lack of healthy receivers available to catch passes. Gray completed only one pass longer than 10 yards, a short route to Ge'Shun Harris, and had another fall through the hands of a diving John Rabe.

He ran effectively, though a couple of potential long gainers were whistled dead so he wouldn't absorb a hit.

But if the cameras had been in the huddle, or in the film room, that's where they would have documented the progress that the part-time wide receiver has made toward seizing his new position.

"He's grown throughout the spring. He knows how to command the offense now," said senior guard Chris Bunders. "MarQueis has become very assertive. He runs through the play in his head beforehand, so he knows what's going on before he even calls it. He knows what he's doing."

He knows he's counted upon to become a leader, in other words, something that might not come naturally but is important for a quarterback.

"He's not a rah-rah leader, but he knows how to get your attention with his actions. He makes you want to get behind him," said running back Donnell Kirkwood, who took the majority of handoffs on Saturday and broke a couple of nice runs, including the day's lone touchdown. "He speaks up now. You hear him taking charge much more than you did last year."

Gray's coaches are just as impressed as his teammates. Even Jerry Kill, who is hesitant to make any judgments after just 15 practices, said "right now, he's the guy going into fall camp," when he'll have to prove himself all over again.

"What he's done to this point on the learning curve, he's done a heck of a job. I'm pleasantly surprised," Kill added. "He's still got a long way to go to learn. But he's done a nice job, and that's going to be important to us."

Still, after two years of catching passes for the Gophers rather than throwing them, Gray relies a little too much on his running ability, Limegrover said. But that's natural.

"The thing he needs to work on is ... being in the pocket, throwing the ball, feeling comfortable," Limegrover said. "I think he got a little bit antsy. He's got to trust those guys up front."

The Gophers ran the scrimmage like a game, with the coordinators in the press box calling plays, which were then relayed via hand signals to Gray (and backup Moses Alipate, who alternated with Gray) on the field. Limegrover said the quarterbacks were a little too deliberate on the first couple of series, but became more comfortable with reading plays off their wristbands as the day went on.

Now it's up to the Gophers' new quarterback to take similar strides before two-a-days open in August, mostly by getting comfortable with his receivers. That process begins Tuesday, in unofficial (and non-coached) practices organized by Gray that will emphasize connecting with the likes of wideout Da'Jon McKnight and tight end Eric Lair, who sat out Saturday with injuries.

"You can never be too good at throwing. I'm going to work on my motion and mechanics," said Gray, determined to make his arm as effective as his legs. "We should develop more accuracy during summer workouts."