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September 20, 2012

Courrier: Gophers in a peculiar position with Nelson

— Jerry Kill is in a tough spot.

The University of Minnesota football coach’s team is 3-0 for the first time in four years, but he may have lost starting quarterback MarQueis Gray for a couple of weeks. Backup Max Shortell played well last week and will likely start again Saturday, though Gray was still listed as the starter Thursday morning.

Even though the 3-0 start has come against less-than-average teams, the Gophers have put themselves into the discussion for a bowl berth, something that hasn’t happened for this program in too long.

Things sound OK, right?

What if his quarterback gets hurt this week? The backup is Mankato West’s Philip Nelson, who was expected to get a redshirt season to develop physically and mentally as he makes the transition to college football.

What if Shortell needs a short breather, maybe cramps up or gets the wind knocked out of him by landing on the football?

Do you send Nelson in for two or three plays? If he takes one snap, he loses his redshirt season. But if the Gophers lose a game because of one play, someone less qualified than Nelson makes a mistake that costs the team a victory and a bowl berth, Kill loses a major carrot for potential recruits.

What are his options? Tape up Gray, the former starter, and tell him just to hand off? Put a running back or receiver into the shotgun formation to run some form of “wildcat” offense?

That is not the way college football coaches think. Coaches deal with the “now” and try to win, which is what they’re paid to do, and every coach has a story about some player that they nearly burned a redshirt, only to be thankful a couple of years later.

It exposes poor recruiting by the former head coach, who should never have allowed the program to get down to two options at quarterback.

So if Shortell sustains some injury that requires more than a play or two on the sideline, will Nelson play, ready or not?

A bowl berth would signal improvement in the program, and Kill can use all the help he can get while recruiting athletes who dream of playing meaningful games, on TV, in front of big crowds.

It seems as though the Gophers are improving and will be better in the next few seasons, when presumably Nelson, and the other freshmen redshirts, are ready to be starters in the Big Ten.

If the coaches feel that Nelson is the real deal, burning a season for a few plays is silly. But getting to a bowl game is pretty important, too, even if the Gophers would end up in Detroit or Nashville or El Paso.

It’s a tough call for Kill.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at, check out his local sports blog or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.

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