The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 4, 2013

Coaches need to make tough call on QBs


The Mankato Free Press

---- — It’s been interesting, over the last two weeks, to see how a couple of football coaches handled injury and ineffectiveness from the quarterback.

At the University of Minnesota, sophomore starter Philip Nelson suffered a hamstring injury a couple of weeks ago and missed 1 1/2 games. Backup Mitch Leidner played OK in Nelson’s absence, earning Big Ten freshman of the week honors after rushing for 151 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over San Jose State.

Yet when Nelson was deemed healthy, he was the starter last week against Iowa, by far the best team the Gophers had faced so far but not near the toughest opponent they’ll see this season. Nelson was rusty and largely ineffective, rushing for minus-18 yards and completing 12 of 24 passes for 135 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in a 23-7 loss.

There were many factors in the team’s struggles, but quarterback is the position that gets the most attention. Leidner never took a snap last week and there had to be some thought of making a switch, but coach Jerry Kill stuck with Nelson. It appears that Nelson will start again Saturday at Michigan.

The Minnesota Vikings are facing a similar situation. Starter Christian Ponder had been struggling through three losses, but he suffered a cracked rib in Week 3. He was unable to play last week against Pittsburgh so Vikings coach Leslie Frazier turned to backup Matt Cassel, who guided the team to its first win of the season.

Cassel wasn’t brilliant, but he did complete 16 of 25 passes for 248 yards and two scores with no turnovers. He looked decisive and threw the ball with some zip, something that Ponder has lacked in his three starts.

With the bye, no one knows how Frazier will choose his starter. Frazier has publicly supported Ponder, yet the fan base, and seemingly some of the players, seem to favor Cassel.

If Kill were coaching the Purple, it looks like Ponder would be the starter. Loyalty is admirable, but there is plenty of outside pressure to give the ball back to Cassel and capitalize on any momentum. The Vikings garner more interest, and therefore more criticism, than any sports team in the state.

Minnesota State faced this problem last season. Jon Wolf was the starter, but he was injured early in the season and missed two games. Mitch Brozovich stepped in and played well enough for the Mavericks to win. When Wolf was deemed healthy, he returned as the starter, continuing the Mavericks on that magical season.

However, Brozovich showed enough that he continues to get a few plays each half, building for next season, when he’ll likely become the starter.

There’s no pre-written plan on how to handle injuries, especially at quarterback. It’s a position that brings far too much scrutiny, and there are many factors that go into which player gets the start.

But each coach needs to make the right call. Nelson or Leidner, Ponder or Cassel? You can make a case for all four starting, and none of the four have done enough to ensure the job.

It will be interesting to see how each coach makes the decision, and what consequences occur.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.