Philip Nelson held Paul Bunyan's Axe in his hands three years ago, during a recruiting visit to Wisconsin. On Saturday, the Gophers' freshman quarterback apparently will have a chance to take it home with him.
Nelson will make his collegiate debut in Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, barring a last-minute change of plans by Minnesota's coaches, a source close to the football program told the Star Tribune.
Nelson, who spent the week taking most of the snaps with Minnesota's first-team offense, will replace Max Shortell, who has been inconsistent in three starts. MarQueis Gray, the source said, remains hobbled by a sprained left ankle, and will play only at receiver, if at all.
Coach Jerry Kill has said for months that the Gophers preferred to keep Nelson on the sideline this season and let him learn the offense during a redshirt year. But Minnesota's two-game losing streak, and the offense's inability to score consistently, has apparently changed Kill's plans.
It's the second straight season that the Gophers have thrust a true freshman into the heat of Big Ten play in a huge, raucous stadium. Last year, Shortell made his first start at Michigan while Gray was out with a toe injury, a game the Gophers lost 58-0.
Nelson, a 19-year-old from Mankato West High, has been touted as the Gophers' quarterback of the future since he committed to Minnesota early in 2011, then led his prep team to in 11-1 record and a section championship, and won Mr. Football honors for himself.
Ironically, Nelson spent much of his childhood in Madison, where his father once played for the Badgers, and he was recruited by Wisconsin -- and held the Axe in the Badgers' locker room at Camp Randall Stadium -- before choosing Minnesota. The Gophers, who face the Badgers at 11 a.m. Saturday, have lost eight straight games to Wisconsin.
Shortell has completed 57 percent of his passes in relief of Gray this season, with six touchdowns and four interceptions. But the Gophers have not scored more than 17 points since Sept. 15, and Jerry Kill has made it clear he is willing to use freshman in order to try to win games rather than preserve their redshirt season. Last week, running back Rodrick Williams and tight end Lincoln Plsek, both true freshmen, made their Gopher debuts.
Nelson will operate an injury-riddled Gopher offense, however. Left tackle Ed Olson, recovering from an ankle injury, did not make the trip to Madison, and his brother Tommie, the Gophers' starter at left guard, is not expected to play. Three receivers are also recovering from a variety of injuries.
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