Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 7/22/12
This is the first in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team's start of practice. July 22: Quarterbacks July 23: Running backs July 24: Wide receivers July 25: Right ends July 26: Offensive linemen July 27: Defensive linemen July 28: Linebackers July 29: Cornerbacks July 30: Safeties July 31: Specialists Aug. 1: Coaches TODAY'S POSITION: QUARTERBACKS Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7 Projected starter: MarQueis Gray (senior) Key backups: Max Shortell (sophomore), Philip Nelson (freshman) The breakdown: The 2011 season was Gray's first year as the Gophers' starting quarterback after spending his freshman and sophomore seasons as a wide receiver. But after Adam Weber graduated, Gray made the transition back to quarterback. Gray possesses size and athleticism matched by few other quarterbacks in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder showed off that physicality by leading the Gophers in rushing yards in 2011racking up 966 on 199 carries, 300-plus yards more than Minnesota's top running back Duane Bennett. Gray scored six rushing touchdowns and averaged 87.8 rushing yards per game, sixth among Big Ten players in the Big Ten. Gray's arm, however, remains a work in progress. Minnesota finished 2011 second-to-last in Big Ten passing offense with just 150.3 passing yards per game, ahead of only Ohio State (127.0). Individually, Gray ranked ninth in passing yards per game with 135.9. Gray missed one game due to an injury, and the Gophers were forced to use Shortell, a true freshman, in his place. Shortell ended up attempting 54 passes last season, throwing two touchdowns. After completing just 50.7 percent of his passes last season, Gray said this spring that his goal is to have a 60 percent completion rate during his senior year. If he can do that, Minnesota's passing offense could surprise some teams. But the other important part for Gray is his development as a leader. Minnesota needs him to be a leader in the huddle as well as someone who can run the offense. Having a full year under his belt as the starter and a full year under a new coaching staff should help Gray's confidence in 2012. "I just think it's the comfort level back there. He's a lot more at ease," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said this spring. " I don't think MarQueis has ever doubted his ability to play. I think he feels more comfortable that everyone else now knows that he can play. That's a big part of the process." Gray's wide receivers are mostly a group of unknowns. He loses his top target from 2011 in wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight. Gray will still be relied on to do some damage with his feet, but he can't tuck the ball and run as often as he did last season when his primary receiver isn't open. In order for Minnesota's passing attack to succeed, it will be up to the senior quarterback to take charge of his young receiving corps and be a leader on and off the field. Best position battle: The starting quarterback job is clearly Gray's to lose heading into fall camp. Who Gray's top backup will be remains the big question. Shortell obviously has the most experience of any other backup quarterback on the roster, as he appeared in several games as a true freshman in 2011. Two of the other three backups (Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner) are true freshmen, and Dexter Foreman redshirted last season. Shortell appears the obvious choice to begin the year as Gray's backup, and he's put on some weight since his freshman season. He should be pushed in fall camp and throughout the season by the freshmen Nelson and Leidner. Nelson, a standout at Mankato West High School, was the top quarterback in the state of Minnesota and one of the biggest gets of Coach Jerry Kill's 2012 recruiting class. This job will eventually be his; for now, he'll be learning from Gray and others. Best of the Big Ten: 1. Michigan; 2. Ohio State; 3. Iowa. The Wolverines are led by Denard Robinson, one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in the Big Ten and perhaps all of college football. Robinson rushed for the fifth-most yards in the Big Ten last season and the most of any quarterback in the conference with 1,176 (90.5 per game). He scored 16 rushing touchdowns, second-most in the league behind Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. Robinson's backup, Devin Gardner, gained experience the past two seasons. Ohio State's Braxton Miller didn't rank high among statistical categories as a freshman last season, but he showed flashes of brilliance in 2011. He'll have a year of experience to build on. Iowa's James Vandenberg ranked third in passing yards per game and fourth in pass efficiency last year. The players ahead of him in each category have all graduated. Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.
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