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Thursday, February 28, 2013
Spring QB battles: Minnesota

By Brian Bennett

Spring (practice) is in the air, and so we're taking a closer look at the quarterback battles looming for several Big Ten teams. They're guaranteed to get plenty of attention from fans during the 15 spring practice sessions and throughout the summer.

Next up in our series: the Minnesota Gophers.

Incumbent (2012 stats): Sophomore Philip Nelson (873 passing yards, eight touchdowns, eight interceptions, 49.3 completion percentage in seven starts).

Spring contenders: Mitch Leidner, redshirt freshman; Chris Streveler, true freshman.

Summer contender: Donovahn Jones, incoming freshman.

The skinny: On the face of it, this one seems pretty simple. The Gophers burned Nelson's redshirt last year in Game 6, throwing him into the fire for an unexpected start against Wisconsin. He played pretty well there, then threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns the following week against Purdue. He also had a solid bowl game performance against Texas Tech, passing for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

He's the future of the program, right?

Not so fast. Head coach Jerry Kill made it clear in December that Nelson was no lock to start in 2013. That's not a knock on Nelson -- though he still has a lot to learn -- as much as it is an indication that the Gophers have some good options at the position going forward.

Pushing Nelson this spring will be Leidner, who was a well-decorated recruit who redshirted last year, and Streveler, an early enrollee who had a terrific high school career and is at least as good an athlete as Nelson. Then there's Jones, whom a big-time athlete who flipped from Missouri to Minnesota just before signing day, so he could have a chance to play quarterback in college. Kill has promised him that chance.

So Nelson can't get comfortable, which is good news for the Gophers since competition should make all the young quarterbacks better. He went through a three-game stretch last season when he never passed for more than 78 yards and threw three interceptions. Some of that could be blamed on offensive line injuries and a depleted receiver corps, but Nelson can't have those kinds of performances this offseason if he wants to hold onto the job.

Prediction: Nelson has a big leg up here because of the in-game experience, and he rose to the occasion at times in the bowl game. It would be surprising to see him lose the job this spring unless he simply does not play well. But any of the others could make a big move, so there's no guarantee Nelson starts the Aug. 29 opener against UNLV.