Gophers will use super sophomore Gray to spell Weber at QB as they look to better 6-7 record

whether he's injured, struggling or finally out of eligibility.

Gophers coach Tim Brewster, after holding an open competition for the job during spring practice, declared Weber the starter before the summer, confident the fifth-year senior can bounce back from a rough season and thrive under a new offensive coordinator.

So what do they do with MarQueis Gray?

The super-athletic sophomore, the prize of Minnesota's 2008 recruiting class ranked in the top 20 nationally by many analysts, might be the most physically gifted player on the team. He's 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, with enough strength to power-clean 335 pounds, according to Brewster. That's lineman level.

After getting some time in the backfield to run wildcat-style formations and also lining up as a wideout on occasion as a freshman, Gray will get consideration as a receiver, a runner and perhaps even a punt returner while the Gophers try to maximize one of their best assets.

"He's a very talented guy that can impact the game," Brewster said, "and when he's standing next to me he doesn't do as much to help us."

The problem with turning Gray into a utility player is that it stunts his development as a quarterback, where the native of Indianapolis will almost certainly be running the show next year. Though his snaps last season were scattered, Gray didn't exactly look polished. He had a couple of costly fumbles, too. He needs more work to be ready for 2011.

It's also possible his time could come sooner than next fall, if Weber falters. Already the all-time leader in the program's 128-year history with 8,238 yards passing, Weber has started all 38 games of his career.

"We really anticipate him to play well and to lead our team to victory, and if he does those two things Adam will be our quarterback all year," Brewster said. "If for some reason he gets hurt then obviously MarQueis goes in and plays. If he's not playing well, if we're not winning football games, then we give another guy a chance to lead our team to victory."

Weber has grown fond of Gray over the last year. He remarked about his unselfish attitude and sounded eager to watch him contribute more, wherever that might be.

"I think he understands the process of being a backup quarterback. You're one play away. He's been preparing himself and getting himself at the level where he needs to be to be that starter," Weber said. "He'll be ready to go."

Weber and the Gophers offense had a rough season last year as the team finished 6-7, including a 14-13 loss to Iowa State in the Insight Bowl.

And now wide receiver Eric Decker and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett are gone, leaving Weber without his top two passing targets. Another year of experience should help the offensive line, which struggled to clear room for the running game and protect Weber. He was sacked so many times, 38, he finished with minus-133 yards rushing.

Weber's efficiency also dropped. He forced passes too many across the field and couldn't find much support once Decker went down with a season-ending foot injury in late October.

"Last season was very disappointing personally, and also as a team," Weber said. "We didn't get it done on offense, and as a quarterback you take that personally. When they opened up the competition, I accepted the challenge as an opportunity to really hone in and right this ship."

Working at the Manning brothers' quarterback camp and throwing to NFL wide receivers during Larry Fitzgerald's unofficial summer clinic, Weber has gained plenty of valuable experience since last season ended.

"I think Adam will do some big things," fullback Jon Hoese said.

Weber said he devoted himself to the sport even more than in the past, knowing this is his final opportunity.

"I'm in the best shape since I've been in college," he said.

New offensive coordinator Jeff Horton was hired to help Weber rediscover his confidence and refine his mechanics, simplifying the scheme and trying to get the Gophers back to being the powerful running team they were when Glen Mason was the coach.

"If we run the football, we'll be successful," Weber said. "That's something that we're really going to make a concerted effort to do. It's who we are."

The defense lost nine starters from last season, one reason why the Gophers aren't getting much attention at all from fans or analysts around the Big Ten. They'll play their toughest schedule in recent memory, too, with the season opener at dangerous Middle Tennessee, a home game against Southern California and visits from Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa.

Minnesota must also travel to Madison to play rival Wisconsin.

That challenge, Brewster said, is just want the Gophers want.

"I think there's a great deal of excitement about our team and what our team can accomplish," Brewster said, "when so many people have lower expectations for our team."