MarQueis Gray highlights Gophers' spring

Minnesotans are known for their hospitality, but several folks stiff-armed formalities when Matt Limegrover came to town as Gophers' offensive coordinator.

"I didn't get a, 'Hello, welcome to Minnesota,'" Limegrover recalled. "I got a, 'Hey, is MarQueis going to be our starting quarterback?' They wanted to anoint him from the day we got on campus."

From that day forward, Limegrover provided the same answer: I don't know. He wanted to look for the best quarterback to run his offense, not the fan favorite or the most athletically gifted or the highest recruited player.

Would MarQueis Gray be in the mix? Without a doubt. But new Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, Limegrover and the rest of the staff are stressing accountability this spring. Starting jobs will be earned, not inherited.

"We need that quarterback to be a quarterback," Limegrover said, "more than just a wonderful athlete who can catch a snap from center."

Fortunately for the coaches, Gray accepted their challenge.

He spent the winter months studying Northern Illinois games from the 2010 season, trying to pick up nuggets and nuances from the offense Minnesota will run this season. He hounded his new quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski with questions.

He would lead voluntary workouts and then gather teammates like top receiver Da'Jon McKnight to watch more film. Gray went "above and beyond in his preparation," Limegrover said.

"He would show us the depth or the speed or the timing, things like that," McKnight said. "It just showed me he cares. He's trying to be a leader. He really wants to win."

It has paid dividends so far this spring.

From talking with Kill on Monday, I can say the new coach isn't giddy about too many things right now with his team. But Gray's progress is one of them.

"He's been the biggest surprise on our whole team, period," Kill said. "MarQueis has done an unbelievable job of picking up what we're asking him to do. He's had to learn a lot, he's seen a lot of different things from the defense, he's handled himself well, he's very composed. He's got good work ethic and he's a good football player."

Gray knew he'd need to get back into "quarterback mode" this winter after playing most of the 2010 season at wide receiver, where he finished second on the team in receptions (42), receiving yards (587) and receiving touchdowns (5). He was used to learning a new offense after Minnesota cycled in new systems the previous two years, but he spent even more time with the scheme Kill and Limegrover were bringing from Northern Illinois.

"I thought I might as well get a head start and become a vocal leader and put guys in the right place," Gray told me Monday. "I just took the job head-on. It put me a step of everyone else, and now I can help them because I came in earlier."

Gray always has been popular with Gophers fans. A good portion of them wanted to see him win the starting job last spring, when he competed alongside Adam Weber.

Although Gray entered the offseason as the heavy favorite to claim the starting job, he never felt entitled to it.

"I didn't want them to just hand me over the job because they heard good things," he said.

Gray's work the past few months has his coaches saying plenty of good things about their top quarterback.

"He’s the best quarterback; not just the best athlete at quarterback," Limegrover said. "If he had come in and fumbled around and couldn't get people in right spots and had trouble with cadence, then we'd have a real dilemma on our hands. To his credit, he wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. It made our lives a lot easier."