CHICAGO — The Big Ten's best athlete might play quarterback for that team with a Block M. Only this quarterback wears maroon.
MarQueis Gray stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 245 pounds and runs like a deer, both with his speed and his power. He previously started at wide receiver and nearly pulled a double-double last year with almost 1,500 yards passing and nearly 1,000 yards rushing.
"He’s both a run threat and a pass threat and those are the toughest ones to go up against," Iowa safety Tanner Miller said. "With the type of offense that they run, it makes it that much more difficult because it’s more like they have two running backs in the backfield instead of just one."
But Gray wants more than just the "athlete" moniker. He's trying to earn respect as a quarterback and not just for his passing ability. He failed to gain eligibility in 2008 because of ACT irregularities. The situation humbled him. As a young player shifting from back-up quarterback and wide receiver, Gray was behind four-year starter Adam Weber. Gray wasn't sure how he fit with the Gophers, so he didn't speak up and sat in the background.
"It was kind of hard for me because I wasn’t too sure," Gray said. "I wasn’t doing good as a quarterback so I felt why should I be trying to be a leader?"
With Weber leaving the program after the 2010 season, Gray progressed as a quarterback under new Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill, who tried to instill confidence in Gray. Gradually Gray became more self-assured but still struggled along with his team. That all changed in a late October meeting with Iowa.
The Hawkeyes stumbled early with a pair of missed field goals, and Gray encouraged the Gophers to stay upbeat. When Iowa scored the game's first touchdown, Gray reciprocated with a scoring drive of his own. At halftime the score was 7-7, and Gray had changed from athlete playing quarterback to pure team leader.
"Once we started that game off slow going three and outs and a turnover and Iowa kept missing field goals, I pulled the guys to the side and let them know that we’re still in this game and since they’re missing those field goals there’s a reason (and) that we should win this game," Gray said. "We had great things that happened. I got that last touchdown, we got the onside kick and came out victorious."
Gray scored the game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Iowa 3 with 2 minutes, 48 seconds left.
"Games like that lets you know what your team is capable of. There shouldn’t be a reason why you shouldn’t have a game like that and go downhill the games after that.
"Last year in the Iowa game that was my first time being a vocal leader. From that moment on being a vocal leader for our offense, and I feel like in the offseason I became the vocal leader for the whole team. Just building a chemistry with the guys who have been there and the incoming freshmen this year and make sure they’re ready to go this coming season"
Gray pushed his early academic issues aside and graduated earlier this year with a degree in youth studies/school science. He's taking graduate-level courses and devoting more time toward becoming a top quarterback.
Kill said the team plans to use Gray's talents in multiple ways, but the coach is more interested in developing the other skill position players to help Gray make those plays. Gray threw for 1,495 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in 10 starts last year. He also rushed for 966 yards and six touchdowns.
"I think he's come a long way," Kill said. "I think that he'll be a very, very exciting football player to watch, not only in the Big Ten but throughout the country.
"I think MarQueis, playing quarterback after one year, he's improved so much. I think the most important thing to our football team is what the people around him do."
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
- Division: Legends
- 2011 record: 3-9, 2-6
- Returning offensive starters (7): QB MarQueis Gray, HB John Rabe, WR Brandon Green, LT Ed Olson, LG Tommy Olson, OL Caleb Bak, RG Zac Epping
- Returning defensive starters (6): DE D.L. Wilhite, DE Ben Perry, LB Keanon Cooper, LB Mike Rallis, CB Troy Stoudermire, CB Brock Vereen
- Key losses: RB Duane Bennett, WR Da'Jon McKnight, DT Brandon Kirksey, LB Gary Tinsley, S Kim Royston
- 2011 review: In the opener at USC, Minnesota nearly pulled off the upset of the early season in a 19-17 loss. But the Gophers stumbled against New Mexico State and North Dakota State in non-conference play and first-year coach Jerry Kill was sidelined with health issues. Then, Minnesota was buried 58-0 by Michigan in their worst Big Ten loss ever. But the Gophers rebounded to beat Iowa and Illinois for the second consecutive year.
- 2012 schedule: A30 at UNLV; S8 New Hampshire; S15 Western Michigan; S22 Syracuse; S29 at Iowa; O13 Northwestern; O20 at Wisconsin; O27 Purdue; N3 Michigan; N10 at Illinois; N17 at Nebraska; N24 Michigan State
- Key stretch: The non-conference schedule is crucial for Minnesota attempting to reach its first bowl since 2008. The Gophers face the league's four best bowl squads so home games against Northwestern and Purdue also are vital.
- Trap game: Western Michigan. Minnesota can't afford to overlook anyone especially the Broncos, who have beaten three BCS teams in the last five years, including Iowa and Illinois. Plus, Western Michigan -- which narrowly lost to Purdue in the Little Caesar's Bowl -- is the considered the MAC West Division favorite.
- Glass half-full: Minnesota has a veteran offensive line and a dual-threat QB in MarQueis Gray. The Gophers' toughest games are spread throughout the season.
- Glass half-empty: The Gophers lost their best defensive players on a unit that allowed 31.7 points and 403.1 yards per game. Minnesota ranked last in total offense last year.
- Quotable: "I certainly feel like we've taken great strides in our program. Our kids, from the day we ended up our last game of the season to now, I think are excited about where they're at." -- Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill