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Kill says Gray is Gophers' quarterback

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sports Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

By Dave Campbell

AP Sports Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- There is no mystery about Minnesota's first-string quarterback.

MarQueis Gray, the strong, speedy junior whose uneven debut as a starter last week ended early because of cramps, still has the job despite an eye-opening performance in relief by freshman Max Shortell.

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"We're not going to change anything we've done," coach Jerry Kill said.

He left a lot of room for intrigue, however. Kill has never been shy about rotating his quarterbacks, as he did last year at Northern Illinois to give Chandler Harnisch a break, and the plan for this season is to use Shortell in relief of Gray at certain points for a different look to the defense. There's also the possibility that Gray could move to wide receiver for a play here or there.

"MarQueis went out and Max came in and did well, and I think that's a great thing for us because we'd like to be aggressive with our quarterback and what we do," Kill said, adding: "We know that we've got two kids that are capable of playing, so that's a good situation to be in, and I'm not worried about that near as much as I'm worried about some other things."

Like blocking, penalties and a lack of composure and crispness in the first half, setbacks that led to the 19-17 loss at USC last Saturday. Kill described his team as "starry-eyed" and "lethargic" early in the game. The Gophers trailed 19-3 midway through the third quarter when a bad snap by the Trojans set up their first touchdown. Gray was in for that drive, which went 30 yards in four plays.

But on that warm afternoon in Southern California, Gray was sweating heavily as usual -- Kill said he thought it was anxiety-related -- and felt cramps in his calf and throwing arm. He left the game, and Shortell entered for the fourth quarter, conducting an impressive march up the field capped by a 12-yard scoring pass to Brandon Green.

The rookie from the Kansas City area threw an interception on the final possession that ended the comeback, but he turned some heads in the process.

"I went up to Max right before the game ended when I saw we were going to get the ball back and said, 'You know, I'm really proud of you,'" center Ryan Wynn said Tuesday. "Max is the same grade as my little sister, who just started college today. I was really proud of him. The kid led the huddle. He made the right calls. I tell you what: I would've been peeing my pants out there."

Shortell finished 7 of 13 for 98 yards, the touchdown and the interception, which by all accounts was an exceptional play by USC's Torin Harris to get in front of Da'Jon McKnight and wrestle the ball away.

Gray went 7 of 12 for 94 yards passing, plus 47 yards rushing on 16 attempts. Shortell looked more poised in the pocket, though, and the Gophers ran crisper plays when he was in, whether that had anything to do with who was under center or not. Kill said he saw Gray "processing quite a bit early" as he adjusted to seeing the different defenses he saw during his first game leading the offense. He played wide receiver last season while Adam Weber finished his fourth season as the starting quarterback.

Now, Shortell is pushing Gray the same way Gray pushed Weber.

"When 'Queis needs a break, I'll jump in there and do my job," said Shortell, shying away from any suggestion of a takeover.

Gray was down on himself, calling his performance "not good at all" while taking responsibility to be a better leader, not just a more accurate passer.

"We were doing too much thinking instead of just going out there and reacting to the play calls," Gray said.

His teammates told him not to be so self-defeating.

"There was a little nervousness for everybody, just being the first game against a different team," running back Duane Bennett said. "So we kind of feel for what he was going through, but we know he's going to have a lot of growth going into the remainder of the season. He's going to be a great asset for us."

How about at wide receiver?

"If it's a play call, I wouldn't mid it at all. As long as I'm on the field," Gray said.

That's the plan, unless he needs a rest.

"I don't want to give everything we're going to do away, but right now we need to get him focused, get comfortable on playing quarterback," Kill said, adding: "We're asking a whole lot out of that kid. We really are. But he'll be fine."

Notes: Kill called himself last week the only coach in the country who orders his staff to videotape the sideline, so he can judge his team's demeanor, class, organization and preparation. "We did a little extra running," Kill said, when asked what he saw from the USC game. He acknowledged he didn't keep his composure the whole afternoon, either. "I need to do some extra running," he said, turning his answer into a joke about his figure. ... Backup middle LB Brandon Beal is recovering from an injury to the same knee he hurt at Florida three years ago, when he tore his ACL. He was expected to challenge starter Gary Tinsley for playing time. "Is it a month? I wish I knew, but I don't," Kill said of the timetable for Beal's return. ... Another backup LB, Aaron Hill, is fighting a hamstring injury. Kill said he's "very questionable" to play against New Mexico State.

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