Demry Croft departs, leaving Gophers with another search

Published 10:07 pm Monday, November 27, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Coach P.J. Fleck will start his second season at Minnesota facing the same challenge as in his first year in charge of the Gophers: by breaking in another new starting quarterback.

Demry Croft has decided to leave the program, following a final month in maroon and gold during which he set the school’s single-game quarterback rushing record in one contest but completed only 10 passes for an offense that produced just 10 points over the other three games combined.

Croft, a redshirt sophomore who replaced fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda as the starter at midseason, asked Fleck for his release from his scholarship after Minnesota’s 31-0 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. Team spokesman Paul Rovnak confirmed that Fleck will grant the request by Croft, who completed 51 of 123 passes (41.5 percent) for 674 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions.

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Whether Croft, who was recruited by then-coach Jerry Kill’s staff out of Boylan Catholic High School in Rockford, Illinois, will transfer to another school to continue his football career was unclear Monday. The St. Paul Pioneer Press first reported Croft’s departure after he did not attend the team’s season-ending awards banquet on Sunday.

Rhoda and Croft were named co-starters for the opener against Buffalo. After a strong performance at Oregon State by Rhoda, Fleck announced that Croft was suspended from the team for an unspecified off-the-field reason. He was reinstated to the roster after three weeks.

Croft then replaced a struggling Rhoda in the first half against Michigan State and threw three touchdown passes to Tyler Johnson in a fourth-quarter rally that fell three points short. The only one of his six starts that stood out in a positive way was the 54-21 victory over Nebraska in which he had 10 rushes for 183 yards and went 9 for 15 for 105 yards through the air.

The Gophers, who finished 5-7 to miss a bowl bid for the first time in six years, have two viable but unproven returning candidates for the job in 2018.

Seth Green, a native of Woodbury, Minnesota, who played at East Ridge High School before a senior-year transfer to Texas, didn’t attempt any passes as a redshirt freshman in 2017. Tanner Morgan, a cousin of former NFL first overall draft pick Tim Couch who came from Ryle High School in Union, Kentucky, took a redshirt this season. Fleck and his staff, though, are certain to sign another quarterback or two in the 2018 recruiting class, perhaps including a junior college transfer.

Whoever winds up with the assignment when New Mexico State visits TCF Bank Stadium on Aug. 30 will have a tall task ahead to try to revive a passing game that was mostly nonexistent this year. With Rhoda and Croft, the Gophers had a 47.2 completion percentage that ranked last in the Big Ten. Only eight of 129 teams in the FBS, mostly with traditional option offenses and run-heavy schemes, gained fewer passing yards per game than the Gophers this season.

They were so overwhelmed against the Badgers’ defense on Saturday that passing plays were essentially eliminated from consideration to minimize the embarrassment.

“Eventually, it’s like, ‘OK, how many second-and-17s do we want to have?’” Fleck said, adding: “You don’t want it to be 60 to nothing.”

Johnson, a sophomore who missed the last two games because of a broken wrist, was the only wide receiver who offered some promise at a position group that needs to be rebuilt as badly as quarterback. The offensive line was ravaged by injuries, including an early retirement by sophomore right tackle Nick Connelly because of repeated concussions. The starting guards, seniors Garrison Wright and Vince Calhoun, will need to be replaced.

“We’ll fix it. Recruiting, development, strength and conditioning, that’s what we’ll do within our program,” Fleck said. “The guys that stay will be champions.”

The greatest strengths the Gophers will have in 2018 are a dynamic group of Minnesota native juniors-to-be on defense and running back Rodney Smith, the first repeat winner as team most valuable player since MarQueis Gray in 2011-12.

Smith rushed for 977 yards, with backfield cohort Shannon Brooks injured and limited to six games.

“We’ve got to get everybody believing in themselves, get some guys with some experience,” Smith said.