Minnesota coaches know that MarQueis Gray is their best player. At the same time, Gray doesn't fit into a conventional view of quarterback play.
A 6-foot-4, 240-pounder who played receiver before last season, Gray is an imposing runner in the open field who needs more polish as a pocket passer. So the Gophers went looking for ways to best utilize his talents this offseason, and that quest led them to study the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
Three Minnesota offensive assistants visited Baylor last month. Their goal was to see how Bears coach Art Briles and his staff helped develop Robert Griffin III from an athlete playing quarterback into a guy who completed more 72 percent of his passes en route to the Heisman.
Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover stresses that he doesn't expect Gray to wind up in New York City next December. He and Griffin aren't exactly the same type of player.
"But they're in the same ballpark," Limegrover said. "We saw [Griffin] on film a couple of years ago when we were preparing for Kent State at Northern Illinois, and Kent State had played Baylor. You could tell he was a really good athlete but not a finished product. Somewhere along the line, Baylor made kind of a fundamental shift in the way they approached things. They allowed him to maximize what he did best."
That's what the Minnesota coaches hope to do with Gray, even if it means changing the way they've traditionally run their offense. Limegrover said the trip to Baylor may have only provided little tips, like a passing route concept or how Griffin approached pre- and post-snap situations. But it could help them think about new strategies.
"It would be a real shame if we just sat here and said, 'Let's just do it exactly the same way we have been doing it, and he'll just figure it out,'" Limegrover said. "I think we would be doing that kid and this team and really our entire fan base a disservice."
The Gophers made some adjustments to the offense as 2011 went along, but a series of nagging injuries held back Gray's development in the first half of the season. Gray started to show what he could do down the stretch, leading the team to a comeback victory over Iowa, throwing for 295 yards and three touchdowns against an excellent Michigan State defense and running for 327 yards in the final two games.
Still, he finished the season with a completion rate just a hair over 50 percent. He has focused this offseason on becoming a better passer.
"I've been working a lot on my throwing mechanics," Gray said. "I think we'll be able to go deep a lot more this season. I'll always be able to run the ball -- that's what I'm known for. I'm trying to do a better job of getting my timing down with the wide receivers and tight ends."
Limegrover learned a few things about Gray last year. He found out that Gray doesn't like to stand at the line of scrimmage for very long and that he's better when he can get the snap quickly. So the Gophers are designing ways where Gray can do more of his thinking and reacting once the ball is in his hands.
Limegrover also wants to get his quarterback out of the pocket and make throws on the move, which feels more natural to him. But the most important thing Gray can do this offseason, Limegrover said, is to become a leader. With seniors like Da'Jon McKnight and Duane Bennett gone and a young supporting cast around him, this is Gray's team in 2012.
"I would never say MarQueis has to rush for 1,000 yards or throw for 2,000," Limegrover said. "But MarQueis has to be fully aware that he's the unquestioned leader of the offense and what he does, how he goes about his business, they will follow.
"I think he's improving daily in that area. He's getting after it, getting after his teammates. He has an air about him this year where the other guys look at him and say, 'OK, this guy can do it. Let's go help him get it done.'"
Gray said he first asserted his leadership in the second half of the Oct. 29 Iowa game. That's when he called his offense together and told them they needed to stop making so many mistakes. Minnesota rallied for a shocking 22-21 upset, with Gray scoring the game-winner on a short touchdown run.
As for what exactly his coaches picked up at Baylor in their RG3 research, Gray said that will be kept a secret until the Gophers start spring practice on March 22. But he's anxious to see how that can help his game.
"He learned to be more of a quarterback as an athlete," Gray said. "Hopefully we can use some of the things they learned down there to help me do the same."