Philip Nelson's transfer shines light on Gophers' direction

Philip Nelson's transfer shines light on Gophers' direction
January 18, 2014, 12:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

The transfer of Philip Nelson came as a bit of a surprise Thursday.

Minnesota announced its starting quarterback would be leaving the program, and the Star Tribune later reported it was due to Nelson's desire to play in a more passing-friendly system.

"For me, I am looking  to play in a system that centers more around the pass game which utilizes my skill sets," Nelson told the Minnesota paper in a statement. "I am excited to go out and meet with programs that match up with my talents."

While Nelson's departure could mean a downgrade at quarterback for the Gophers heading into next season — he was, after all, Mr. Football in the state of Minnesota in 2011 — it certainly signals what direction the Gophers' offense will be heading in 2014 and beyond.

Kill placed a heavy emphasis on the run this past season, and when the Gophers were winning games during two separate four-game winning streaks, they were doing it with excellent running performances. Running back David Cobb emerged as the team's featured rusher and finished with 1,202 yards on the season. Cobb rushed for more than 100 yards six times this season, including an average of 142 yards per game during that four-game streak in conference play.

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Additionally, Kill wanted his quarterbacks to be a part of that rushing attack. It's why Mitch Leidner came in to spell Nelson on many occasions, including the majority of the bowl game. Leidner had more rushing attempts than Nelson, though Nelson had more than 100 more passing attempts. Kill, who coached do-it-all quarterbacks Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch at his previous job at Northern Illinois, wouldn't shock anyone by looking for that kind of style at Minnesota.

The loss of Nelson should not be read as the end of the world in the Twin Cities. The Gophers, after all, were the least-prolific passing team in the Big Ten, ranking last in passing offense with just 148.1 yards per game. But it does create a question mark. Leidner got his share of playing time, but Nelson was the clear-cut starting QB for the majority of the season.

Now that Nelson is out, perhaps the focus can shift even more on the ground game, and a more fleet-of-foot quarterback could make Kill's offense even more effective.

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What's surprising, though, is the growing note of disappointment that such a remarkable season in the Twin Cities is ending on. The Gophers overcame adversity when Kill took a leave of absence to better handle his epilepsy, going on to rattle off four straight wins in the middle of the Big Ten season and finish 8-4, just the fourth eight-win season at Minnesota since 1967. But since reaching the eight-win mark, the team dropped a pair of tough games against Wisconsin and Michigan State to finish the regular season and suffered a defeat to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.

Nelson's departure just adds more less-than-positive news in the wake of what should have been nothing but positivity heading into Kill's fourth year leading the program.