Opposing coaches and friends, Brian Vossen of Lakeville North and Andy Hill of Woodbury engaged in a little gamesmanship as kickoff approached Thursday.
Hill noticed senior RaJa Nelson, the Panthers' outstanding running back and receiver, taking snaps at quarterback. Hill asked Vossen, "You going to try and sneak him in on the first play?"
Vossen replied, "We might play him there the whole game."
Hill's intuition told him Vossen wasn't joking. Sure enough, Nelson played quarterback well into the fourth quarter in the Panthers' 24-7 road victory. He ran 16 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
Nelson, a Star Tribune All-Metro first-team selection last year in the "athlete" category, was a known game-breaker for the defending Class 6A Prep Bowl champions. But never as a quarterback. Until now.
"You think the secret is out now?" Vossen said. "He's a talented kid. There is a learning curve, but this is his fourth year. No one is more poised and ready for what's happening on game day than RaJa Nelson."
Primarily asked to run the ball, Nelson flummoxed Woodbury coaches with his moves and ability to escape tacklers. "We had him for a loss," one lamented inside the press box as Nelson drove the Panthers into field goal range.
An assistant smacked the wall on the next Lakeville North possession as Nelson turned another potential loss into an 8-yard run to Woodbury's 5-yard line. Nelson finished the drive with his first score and the Panthers led 10-0.
Initial joking of playing Nelson at quarterback got more serious over the summer. But the game plan "was more, 'Let's try it out and see how it goes,' " said Nelson, who also rotated at cornerback, punted and was the holder on placekicks.
"In practice it was working so we said, 'We're going to run with it.' And tonight, I think we did pretty well at it. It's basically like a running back at quarterback."
Special teams also produced. Defensive end Landon Carter, with great speed off the edge, used his pass rushing skills against the punter.
"I was like, 'I'm going to get it. I'm going to get it,' " Carter said.
He did, blocking a punt attempt that teammate Jacob Young recovered in the end zone. The Panthers built a 17-0 lead in the third quarter.
"That was 100 percent on me; we've got to have a better protection scheme," said Hill, adding that such a deficit "against these guys, you're in trouble."
Though Nelson showed great ability behind center, Vossen ended the night as he began — playing it coy with the game plan.
"When you have an athlete like him, you've got to come up with every creative way to get him this football," Vossen said. "This week it was playing quarterback."
Same for next week?
"Might be," Vossen said with a smile. "I don't know for sure."