1. MarQueis Gray | QB | Senior | 6'4” 245 lbs. Passing: CMP YDS YPA TD INT 50.7 1,495 7.02 8 8 Rushing: ATT YDS AVG TD 199 966 4.9 6 Photo credit: Chris Polydoroff/Pioneer Press
If the Golden Gophers reach a bowl this year, it will be because MarQueis Gray lead them to one. Plain and simple, he’s the centerpiece of the offense, the team’s most talented player and starts at the most important position in all of football. Likewise, if he gets hurt, the reigns are thrown to sophomore Max Shortell, who still needs time to develop into a Division I starting quarterback. Ranking Gray at No. 1 should be a surprise to no one. We don’t advocate violence, but we surely don’t endorse abject stupidity: If someone says the Gophers should move Gray to wide receiver or just bench him outright, go punch them in the face. Here’s why.
There’s no doubt that Gray needs to improve his accuracy – likewise, his receivers will have to make the most of their chances – but once Gray decides to tuck the ball and run, there aren’t many other quarterbacks who can match his mix of speed and power. His 174 rushing yards against Illinois set the school’s single game rushing record for quarterbacks and, even with missing a game, his 966 rushing yards last year set the team’s single-season record for quarterbacks, as well.
Gray rushed for the third-most yards among quarterbacks at the FBS-level last year, although Jerry Kill and Co. would like for the team’s running backs to contribute more to the running game in 2012. Gray was forced into often fleeing the pocket in 2011 due to little protection from a young offensive line that was also battered by injuries. Those absences up front caused several untested and undersized underclassmen into playing time, negatively impacting the running game, leaving Gray as the team’s only real rushing threat. As I wrote in James Gillum’s write-up, the rushing game needs to take a step forward, which in turn should help Gray’s passing and allow him to pick his spots in rushing the ball. Last year’s “scrambling for your life” approach wasn’t exactly by design. Although Denard Robinson and Gray are very different types of mobile quarterbacks, a more ideal situation would be like at Michigan in 2011, where running back Fitzgerald Toussaint complimented Robinson.
Football is a team sport and no one player can be completely responsible for the result of an entire game, but the fact of the matter is that when Gray played well, the team played well and when Gray left the game, the Gophers ended up playing poorly on offense. Without breaking things down to a play-by-play basis and citing somewhat generalities, the one game Gray completely missed ended horribly, a 58-0 drubbing at the hands of Michigan. On the flip side, when Gray played well, the Gophers beat Iowa and Illinois. (Somehow, the Hawkeyes beat the Wolverines. Conventional wisdom and the Sid Hartman Transitive Property of Sports suggested that any team the Gophers beat would have lost to Michigan by an amount somewhere between 50 and 3,000 points.)
Gray also needs to have his hands all over 2012’s offensive game plan because his backups are untested. Max Shortell moved the ball well at first in the season opener against USC, but as the season went on, he was just as inconsistent throwing the ball as Gray and he wasn’t nearly the running threat. When the coach is brand new you can’t necessarily call for his head without sounding completely ridiculous, so the lazy fans’ onus falls onto to the QB when things are going right. As a true freshman, Shortell ended up compiling a passer efficiency rating and completion percentage that were both worse than Gray’s numbers. Kill likes to switch up his quarterbacks at times and Shortell has the tools to be a decent quarterback eventually, but at this point, he should be no more than a solid backup who only sees the field due to injury.
In 2011, the Gophers were a football team with many issues and several major issues. Gray’s passing accuracy was an issue, but major issues were things like defensive back play, the performance of the offensive line and little help from the running game. Gray has the tools and talent to be the most dynamic quarterback the Gophers have had in at least 20 years.
He will need to be if the maroon and gold hope to reach a bowl in 2012.