The Philip Nelson era is officially in motion. But it almost never happened.
Nelson grew up a fan of the rival Wisconsin Badgers for most of his life and as a junior in high school said he had no interest in the Gophers.
Enter head coach Jerry Kill — stage left — to save the day for the program.
Kill found out about Nelson when he arrived on campus and aggressively pursued the Mankato West quarterback. Finding a quarterback was one of Kill’s priorities.
“I couldn’t tell you when I first saw him or anything like that,” Kill said, “but I know as soon as we got the job, we started recruiting him.”
Nelson said Kill and his staff caught him off-guard because former Gophers head coach Tim Brewster didn’t recruit him at all.
“They really wanted me, and that’s something that intrigued me,” Nelson said. “I realized that this coaching staff is for real and I was really excited to be a part of it.”
Now, only a few months into his college career, Nelson is in charge of salvaging a once-promising season.
The Gophers, losers of three-straight games, are on the ropes after a brutal beatdown by the Badgers last weekend.
Nelson said walking onto the field at Camp Randall Stadium, this time as a visitor, brought back many childhood memories of when he used to watch games there with his father.
“I felt the irony behind it, but once you get out there you forget about it and play football,” Nelson said.
Nelson looked poised at times in his first start, but he was otherwise flustered by consistent pressure. He passed for 149 yards and two touchdowns but also threw a pair of interceptions.
Nelson also showcased his running ability against the Badgers — a trait offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said makes him a perfect fit for the offense.
“He’s going to use his legs and make something happen,” Limegrover said. “That’s been [his] M.O. ever since we started watching him.”
Nelson carried the ball more than both tailbacks combined.
Limegrover said that number was about where it should be for Nelson.
Minnesota running backs only carried the ball 12 times in the game, and Limegrover said the Gophers tried to implement quick throws to supplement the run game.
“I don’t think it’s any secret we aren’t able to mash people right now up front, so we consider the quick screens and the bubbles as a part of our running game,” Limegrover said. “That’s a whole dimension that really opens up for us [with Nelson].”
Kill said Nelson has the quickest release of the three quarterbacks on the roster, which helps him complete those quick throws. His quick release was on display against the Badgers, and most of his completions were to his first read.
Nelson said he competed in every practice the entire season, but he didn’t expect to start in his first year with the program.
Both MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell were ahead of him on the depth chart when the season started, but their inconsistent play and injuries have paved the way for Nelson.
“He has the keys to the car. Just being out there and encouraging him is the best thing I can do,” Gray said.
Gray will play wide receiver the rest of the year, but Kill said he could see occasional snaps at quarterback.
Still, Kill made it clear that Nelson is the guy for the Gophers.
“We wouldn’t pull a redshirt off a youngster if we weren’t going to play him,” Kill said.
Nelson attempted to play off the new attention before admitting he’s new to the limelight on the college level. Still, he didn’t temper his expectations after the team’s 0-3 start in the Big Ten.
“It’s exciting to think about the future, but we want to win right now,” Nelson said.
Minnesota will have a chance to do that this weekend against Purdue, which is also winless in three conference games.
Purdue head coach Danny Hope said at Big Ten Media Days in July that this team would be one of his best in years.
The Boilermakers proved him right early on, winning three of their first four games, including two blowout wins and a close loss to No. 5 Notre Dame. They have since faltered.
“We both need a win,” Kill said.
Kill said the Gophers still have concrete goals for the rest of the season, but he didn’t provide any concrete examples.
His freshman quarterback was a little clearer.
“We want to get to a bowl game,” Nelson said. “We want to win out. We want to treat every game like it’s the biggest game there is, and right now Purdue is the biggest game.”