Coaches love to say starting spots are never set in stone, but some position battles are more authentic than others.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers' competition at quarterback this spring certainly feels legitimate.
Adam Weber has started the last three seasons at quarterback for the Gophers, but after both he and the offense struggled in 2009, head coach Tim Brewster set the stage for an open competition between Weber and MarQueis Gray this spring. So far, the contest has been as advertised.
"We’re definitely competing," Weber said. "We were getting equal reps there for a while, and every once in a while, [Gray will] get thrown in there with the [first-team offense]. You can definitely tell that it’s an open competition."
Gray is constantly reminded of the quarterback race, even away from the practice field.
"Everywhere I go," he said, "whether it's logging in on my Facebook or whatever, everyone’s asking me, 'How are you doing? How's the competition? Are you going to play more next year? Are you playing receiver?' It’s crazy."
Gray played wide receiver leading up to the Insight Bowl in December, but he's settling in at quarterback this spring. The athletic 6-4, 222-pound sophomore had 265 rushing yards on 47 attempts last season but attempted only 15 passes, completing six of them.
According to Weber, he and Gray evenly split the reps with the first-team offense during the first few days of spring ball. Weber since has been taking more reps with the top offense, but Gray continues to get his opportunities.
"Come scrimmage time, it’s probably going to be fairly equal," Weber said. "I'd be surprised if I don’t go out there first, but I’d say we’ll get equal reps with the ones. I don’t know how much I’ll go with the twos, but that’s up to the coaches."
Weber is pleased with his progress this spring after a season where his passing numbers and accuracy declined. He never felt 100 percent physically in 2009 after undergoing left (non-throwing) shoulder surgery and being limited for spring practice.
Adjusting to the new offense also took time, but Weber welcomed the challenge. The same goes for the competition this spring.
"It’s a wonderful opportunity, and from my point of view, it’s my job to lose," Weber said. "That’s how I look at it. Every day I go out there, if I don’t perform at the standards I believe I should play at, it’s tough. I still get very frustrated. But that’s the great thing about competition. You never get calm. You never sit back on your heels.
"I always have to be full go, because if I don’t perform, they’re putting another quarterback in and I might never see the field again, so it’s a great motivator. It’s a little scary, but that’s football."
Both quarterbacks sound pleased with the addition of new offensive coordinator Jeff Horton, who they say has brought a new attitude to a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in scoring (20.9 ppg), yards (306.5 ypg) and rushing (99.5 ypg). And as promised, Horton has pared down the playbook this spring.
"Last year, my head was spinning in practice and in the meeting rooms," Gray said. "Coach Horton came in, and he did a lot of simplifying. His philosophy is getting better at what we’re good at; start with little stuff and get better at it. That’s helping people out in a lot of ways."
Horton hasn't installed too much this spring, and when he does, he takes his time.
"It’s not always another play when you come to the next practice," Weber said. "It’s getting better at the players you’re working on in yesterday’s practice."
Brewster wants to identify a starter by the end of spring ball, but both quarterbacks sound confident about their progress. As a senior, Weber embraces the sense of urgency to keep his job, but Gray isn't going away.
"My time will come eventually," Gray said. "Whether or not it happens this year, I still have two more years left. But hey, the sooner the better is how I like to think of it."