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By: Aj Mansour | KFAN.com
Minneapolis, MN - It was only a year ago when in week one of the 2011 season backup freshman quarterback Max Shortell came into the game for an ailing MarQueis Gray. Shortell came into the 4th quarter of his first collegiate game and led the Gophers down the field for a touchdown that brought the Gophers within two points of the USC Trojans. That game coupled with the sub-par passing attack that Gray brought to the table sparked a quarterback controversy in Dinkytown that dominated the conversations surrounding the first quarter of the Gophers 2011-2012 schedule.
This season, the timing may be different, but the players are the same.
When MarQueis Gray went down in the second quarter of Saturday's game with an ankle/knee injury, Shortell came in once again and led the Gophers 78 yards for a touchdown on his very first drive of the year. By the end of the day, Max had racked up 188 yards passing and threw for three touchdowns leading the Gophers on to a 28-23 victory over a plucky Western Michigan squad.
Tuesday, when Coach Kill met the press for his weekly conference, it was only a matter of time before the questions started coming yet again.
"He said that he was doing better," Kill said having talked to MarQueis late Monday evening. "I talked to him yesterday and I said, 'your goal is to try to be a backup on Saturday and be prepared to play.'"
Until the team is able to see more of what Gray can and cannot do on the field, Kill says that the Gophers are heading into Saturday night's game against Syracuse with Shortell as the starting QB, true freshman Philip Nelson as the backup and true freshman Mitch Leidner as a third-string option.
"It's next man up," Kill said Tuesday. "The way we practice is a little bit different than most people, and right now it's paying off because the next man up has done a pretty good job. Max stepped in, did a pretty good job [on Saturday], and now we expect him to go in and play well and be ready to go against Syracuse."
When Shortell came into the game against Western Michigan, he quite literally threw the Broncos defense for a loop. The WMU defense had spent a week scheming for the more mobile, running threat that MarQueis Gray brought to the table and at the point of Gray's injury, Western Michigan's game plan had been working. The overmatched Broncos defense had held the Gophers in check and WMU was leading Minnesota by a score of 10-7. Then Shortell came onto the field and threw the defense a curve ball.
While Gray's most dangerous assets are his clearly his legs (280 yards, 3 TDs), Shortell's most effective weapon comes in the form of his big arm. With only 29 yards of passing offense prior to his entrance, Shortell came into the game and rattled off 188 yards through the air including three touchdown passes.
"I think every quarterback has his strengths and weaknesses," Kill said. "We'll play to [Max's] strengths a little bit, but we don't have to start something all over again...We can do a lot of different things within our system to help fit who you have playing there."
Throughout his career, Coach Kill has been blessed with some good quarterbacks who proved ready to step in whenever their number was called. With Gray, Shortell, Nelson and Leidner, this year is no different. But, looking at their long-term plans, the Gophers are still attempting to be surgical with their use of these young quarterbacks.
No matter how this season ends, MarQueis Gray is a fifth year senior and will not be on the team next year. Max Shortell, currently a Sophomore, will be next in line to lead the Gophers for the next two seasons but the Kill and the Gophers had planned to redshirt freshman quarterback Philip Nelson this season allowing him to take the helm for two years after Shortell graduated. Due to Gray's injury, Nelson, hailing from Mankato, MN, is now the backup quarterback on a team in the Big Ten and will need to be ready to go in if needed, an action that will force him to drop his redshirt designation.
Kill said that he and his coaching staff will develop a plan throughout the week to approach a situation where Shortell might be injured. The blueprint of this plan will surround a quick assessment of whether Shortell is injured and unable to return or whether he simply got his bell rung and needs to sit out a play or two. In the first scenario, Nelson will need to be used as the more reliable, game ready option to fill-in longer term for Shortell. In the latter, it's likely that Leidner will hop onto the field to hold court for a few plays while the training staff attends to Shortell. That said, it's clear that the Gophers are banking on Shortell to stay healthy allowing them to avoid the tough decisions entirely.
MarQueis Gray will still attempt to practice later this week, but as Kill said his goal is to be able to be ready to backup Shortell, not to start.
"We're going to play the ones that can play full speed," Kill added. "We're not going to play a guy at three-quarter speed or something like that and take a risk."
No matter how much Gray may or may not be able to contribute on the field this coming Saturday, his role on the sidelines is sure to be an important one.
"You play quarterback, injured or not injured," Kill said Tuesday. "You see it in the NFL or anywhere, you've got to be in the game. Your job is to play the game and be in it for the other guy just like he's been in it for you. Max has been in the last three games, and he talks to MarQueis all the time. They all talk. 'Hey, you're getting cover two, you're rolling down on this, corner is playing tight, think you've got the post.' That's why we call it a team game."
The long-term sustainability of this "quarterback controversy" lies solely on the shoulders of Max Shortell. Last year, he came out of the gates with a bang against USC sparking the conversation early but fizzled in subsequent games proving that, as a freshman, he was not quite ready to take the helm. If Shortell proves that with another year under his belt he's better equipped to run this team, he might, at the very least, earn himself a shared role under center forming a double edged sword (passing/running) attack for the Minnesota Gophers.
Aj Mansour covers the Twins, Vikings, & Gopher Football for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions on this post or others in the designated comment box below. For Golden Gopher updates and breaking news follow Aj on Twitter @AjMansourKFAN