University of Minnesota quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski remembers distinctly the day that Mankato’s own Phil Nelson became the starting quarterback for the Gophers.
He, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, head coach Jerry Kill and Nelson sat in a room and talked over the decision. It was midway through the 2012 season and Coach Kill wanted to be sure all the pertinent people were involved in the decision-making process.
The team has been struggling at the quarterback position and the coaching staff had seen enough of the then freshman Nelson in practice to consider a change at that spot.
“The coaches were for it but Coach Kill wanted to be sure Nelson was on board, too.” Zebrowski said. “The first thing he said was: “It’s about time. I’m ready.’ We were off and running at that point.”
The quarterback change meant that Nelson would have to forfeit his redshirt season and the clock would start ticking on his collegiate career. Today, a season-and-a-half removed from the decision, everybody involved believes it was the right move to make.
“I definitely thought it was the right move,” Nelson said. “I started the last seven games of the season and that was great experience for me coming back this year. They gave me an opportunity and I’m trying to make the best of it.”
At 5 p.m. Friday, Nelson will lead the 8-4 Gophers on to the field at the Texas Bowl in Houston. He and his teammates will play 6-6 Syracuse before a national TV audience on ESPN. That’s a pretty good season-ending gig considering the Gophers were picked to finish last in the Big Ten this year.
Nelson grew up in Mankato and starred for a Mankato West football team where he owns just about every significant passing record. He has not been able to post similar numbers in college, at least not yet, but there are a lot of factors for that.
The major reason is that Nelson is no longer playing against high school defenses. He’s going against college-level athletes who don’t simply sit in a basic defense and try to make plays. He’s also playing in a completely different offense.
“It’s a total different game in college,” Zebrowski said. “He’s not sitting back there in the shotgun with four of five receivers making hot throws anymore. Now he’s being asked to set up in the pocket and make longer throws against a whole bunch of different coverages.
“They’re not sitting back there in Cover-2 the whole game. They’re mixing up and disguising everything. It’s amazing what defenses can do these days.”
This year Nelson has complete 51.4 percent of passes. He’s 92 of 179 with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. He averages 117.1 yards passing per game.
Zebrowksi says he biggest change between Phil Nelson now and the one who played as a freshman is that the quarterback is much better at handling situations that go astray.
“Whether it’s a protection issue, or whatever, he’s not trying to make plays when they can’t be made. He’s learning to throw the ball away or step out of bounds instead of forcing things.”
Nelson is not running with the ball as much as he did a year ago but that has little to do with being more knowledgeable about the team’s offense. It has more to do with the improved play of the players around him.
Zebrowski said the team’s offensive line is playing better than it was last season so the protection isn’t breaking down as quickly or as often. The running backs are playing better, too, which means Nelson can hand the ball off and let them take care of the ground game.
Two years ago Minnesota had a 3-9 record. Last year, with the help of Nelson, the Gophers improved to 6-7. This season the team took another big step forward to 8-4.
Both Zebrowski and Nelson are convinced the program is headed in the right direction.
“Beating Nebraska this year was a huge stepping stone for us,” Zebrowski said. “We can build on that, starting with the bowl game this weekend and then going on to spring ball and then season.”
Nelson agrees: “First we have to take care of business against Syracuse. Then we come back in the spring and work on getting better.
“The coaching staff is trying to get the best out of all of us. It doesn’t matter if it’s me or Mitch (Leidner) or the other quarterbacks, they’re working with us to make us batter players.
“It’s a great situation to be in.”