Precocious Nelson has Gophers on move

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
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Minnesota coach Jerry Kill knew he was getting a special player when he recruited quarterback Philip Nelson. He just didn't expect to reap the benefits so soon.

The Gophers had planned to redshirt Nelson this season. But after MarQueis Gray injured his ankle and the offense stalled a bit under Max Shortell, those plans changed quickly.

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMinnesota freshman Philip Nelson has made a strong early impression on the Gophers.
"We were missing something," Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover told ESPN.com. "We're not good enough right now as an offense, particularly up front, to say 'OK, we're going to have a quarterback manage the game and not ask him to do anything with his legs, and we're just going to mash people.' We just can't do that right now."

So in came Nelson two weeks ago to start at Wisconsin. And after his jaw-dropping home debut last week against Purdue, suddenly the entire outlook for Minnesota has changed.

The 19-year-old stunned the Boilermakers by completing 13 of his first 14 and threw three touchdowns with no interceptions as the Gophers zoomed out to a 34-7 halftime lead. We named him our Big Ten player of the week for that effort.

How does a true freshman in only his second collegiate game perform like that? Minnesota coaches say Nelson isn't your average freshman quarterback.

"Through 30 years of coaching, I've been fortunate to always get a quarterback that has the 'It' factor," said Kill, who recruited Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch to Northern Illinois. "Philip is along those lines. He's just got that knack for playing the game."

"When all his DNA was put together," Limegrover says, "it was put together to be a quarterback."

Nelson's father, Pat, was a quarterback at Wisconsin in the 1970s. Philip was Minnesota's Mr. Football out of Mankato West High school, where he set state passing records and learned how to command a no-huddle offense. Nelson enrolled at Minnesota last spring to get a jump on his college career.

"You could see that development start right away, almost literally the first day he came to campus," Limegrover said. "By the time he got to fall camp, it wasn't like he was a kid showing up for the first time. He already kind of had a veteran presence about him when we started."

So why did it take until Week 6 for the Gophers to play Nelson? Well, they had Gray, who came on strong at the end of last season and who is a dangerous dual threat. Nelson had a hamstring injury in fall camp that set him back a little bit. And remember, Minnesota started 4-0.

"There wasn't a sense that we had to push the urgency button," Kill said. "You wish you had a crystal ball to make all the predictions of what has happened the last four or five weeks, but we don't. ... I think the best thing about Philip is that he's learned a lot through this process the whole time."

Nelson didn't learn until late in the week before the Wisconsin game that he would be starting, but he took the decision in stride. Listen to him in interviews, and he already sounds like a polished veteran. He told reporters that he prepared every week as if he would be the starter "just to make sure that my opportunity wouldn't embarrass me." And he has made the wise move of rooming with three offensive line starters -- Josh Campion, Caleb Bak and Marek Lenkiewicz -- to build a bond with his most important supporting cast members.

Limegrover praises Nelson's unflappability, accuracy and smarts, in addition to his quick release and mobility at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds. In last week's game against Purdue, Nelson threw away a few passes where it looked like Minnesota might have been able to make a play. Limegrover thought those were wasted opportunities -- until he watched the film.

"When you look at, you're like, 'Oh, my, I see exactly why he did what he did,'" Limegrover said. "He didn't want to turn ball over or he didn't want to take a sack or maybe he knew we were already in field goal range. That's something that is really underestimated in quarterbacks in general and especially young quarterbacks, that kind of decision-making."

Minnesota (5-3) is now just one win away from bowl eligibility with Michigan coming to TCF Bank Stadium this week. The Wolverines, who beat the Gophers 58-0 in Ann Arbor last season, will provide a stiff test for the young quarterback with their disciplined defense. But Kill's team has now found its new leader on offense, along with another weapon at receiver in the multi-talented Gray. So Minnesota is thinking big.

"Last year, we talked about there were two embarrassing games for us, against Purdue and Michigan," Nelson said. "We made one of them right, and we're ready to go make another one right this week."

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