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May 5, 2011

Spring Review: Quarterbacks

Spring practice wrapped up two weeks ago and already Gopher fans are itching for fall to come with a new college football season. This marks the first installment in a series of articles looking at what we learned in spring practice and what the outlook is for next season. Today's subject is quarterback, where the team is led by MarQueis Gray.

Entering spring practice there was no doubt that MarQueis Gray was the front-runner to win the starting job and many fans had already penciled him in at QB. While Gray was not always spectacular, he played well and is one of the few players on offense that it is safe to say has the starting job locked up.

Fans who attended some of the spring practices saw that the former Army All-American was prone to extreme hot and cold streaks. At times he would look phenomenal, hitting all of his targets both from the pocket and rolling out. He'd dazzle the crowd by hitting a WR deep down the field that was being tightly double covered. But then everything could seem to go awry, with interceptions coming on consecutive passes or the crisp passes from earlier seemingly nowhere to be found.

The inconsistency was perhaps not as drastic as I made it out to be above, but it was an issue that seemed to plague Gray throughout spring practice. One can certainly sympathize with him, though. Gray played WR for almost all of last year, his athleticism too much to keep on the sidelines. He finally has the opportunity to return to the position he played in high school full time, but to complicate matters he must learn a completely new offense from the one the team ran last year.

I would be remiss not to take the time to praise just how well Gray did handle the transition back to quarterback. There was never a time that I thought it seemed like he was overwhelmed or in over his head. Sure, he was still working on regaining his form as a quarterback, but he didn't seem to be struggling to understand what was going on in the play. Even more to his credit is the fact that the coaching staff was not taking it easy on him. They threw a lot at him and every time it seemed he handled it without much difficulty. I think Coach Kill knows just how vital MarQueis will be to this team's success and wants to do everything he can to prepare him.

Looking towards summer workouts and fall practice, Gray will need to focus most of his attention on improving his accuracy and consistency. The offense will likely utilize a lot of short, quick routes where precision and timing are key. He will also need to continue learning the playbook. While he seemed to be grasping everything well in spring ball, I'm sure there's still a lot left for him to learn by the time September rolls around. Finally, he needs to continue to work in the film room, learning, or relearning as the case may be, how to read a defense as a QB, because if nothing else I'm sure those skills are a bit rusty for him.

I expect Gray to do well for the Gophers. His ability to run the ball is phenomenal, especially for a guy that is as big and strong as he is. Opponents will have trouble containing him as he is at his best when he's rolling out of the pocket, able to either tuck it and run or throw while still on the move. If Gray can continue to improve as a passer, he will be a major thorn in the side of defensive coordinators everywhere.

Of course, there were more than just one QB working in spring practice. Joining Gray as signal callers were Tom Parish, Moses Alipate, and J.D. Pride. While MarQueis Gray is the probably starter, who assumes the backup role is a very important topic especially with the increased chance of injury for a running QB.

Through the first couple weeks of practice, the situation was a little bleak as all of the QBs struggled. Alipate displayed a strong arm but was wildly inaccurate, while Parish had issues with fumbling and his inexperience showed through in his first year of spring ball. Pride ended up moving to wide receiver, effectively removing him from the competition.

As the practices progressed, Parish seemed to be moving closer and closer to being the team's number two QB, as he was increasingly being used as the QB for the second unit. In fact, by the last few practices Parish was getting almost all of the reps behind Gray, with Moses only getting in for a few plays here and there.

This shift was not without merit. While Parish was very much a freshman at the beginning, by the end he did not have the same fumbling problems as before and his accuracy was much improved. It seemed it had just taken him a while to grow comfortable with the offense, but once he did he showed some decent signs of being a serviceable backup. An added benefit with Parish is that he looked good as a runner, while Moses was a bit slow and did not seem quite as comfortable having to run.

Unfortunately for many Gopher fans that wanted to get a glimpse of Parish in the Spring Game, he was injured in the final week of practice (it's not a serious injury that anyone should worry about). This led to one of the most surprising performances of the game, which came from none other than Moses Alipate.

Suddenly the accuracy problems seemed to be gone. He was hitting most of his targets and displaying the arm strength that he's always been known for. He even looked more comfortable running the ball. It's tough to get a read as to whether this was a light bulb suddenly going off for him or just a flash in the pan-type performance. Gopher fans will hope for the former, but that will remain a question to be answered come this fall.

The final subject worth broaching is that of incoming recruit Max Shortell. With no one firmly grabbing the back up QB role, it's possible that Shortell could come in and seize the spot as a true freshman. He certainly has some of the physical attributes you look for and seems to have a great arm. The question will be whether he can make the transition to the college game quick enough to beat out Parish and Alipate.

My guess is that, in the end, Parish will win the back up QB job and Shortell will redshirt, which will be very much to his benefit. Gray is my pick to start and one of the few guys I think is already locked in to the starting lineup. He has become one of the leaders of this team and has all the tools to be a star. The question will be how well can he reacquaint himself with the QB position and can he master the new coaching staff's offensive schemes.





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