Controversy or not?

Murali Balaji

Well, coach, is it Billy Cockerham or Andy Persby?
It hasn’t elicited the same type of commotion as the Vikings’ Randall Cunningham-Brad Johnson debate, but — contrary to his staunch denials — Gophers’ coach Glen Mason has a quarterback controversy on his hands.
The decision to go with Cockerham or Persby won’t have people holding their breath with excitement and anticipation. Both quarterbacks have had their moments, but have proven to be erratic and unreliable as starters.
Perhaps the best example of the enigma of the quarterback situation was demonstrated by Cockerham against Michigan. After rallying the Gophers in the last minute to defeat the Spartans the week before, Cockerham came up with a miserable performance against the Wolverines, failing to move the team when it needed to.
The dilemma has been exacerbated because of injuries to both quarterbacks. Cockerham is nursing a strained right shoulder, while Persby has a bruised right thigh. Sophomore Ryan Keller, who converted to wide receiver and is temporarily back at quarterback, is currently taking snaps with the first team offense.
“(Keller) started out as a quarterback,” Mason said, but brushed off any implications of Keller’s promotion. “It’s a testament to the fact that the other guys are injured.”
However, the 6-foot-2 Keller looked sharp in practice, giving quarterbacks’ coach Steve Axman confidence that he could turn to the sophomore if needed this Saturday against Wisconsin.
“When you compare the three (quarterbacks), Billy is the most athletic, Andy is the purest passer and Ryan is a combination of the two,” Axman said. “Ryan is very intelligent, and by moving him to receiver, he’s never been out of the passing game.”
In fact, Keller may be the most talented of the three. He has the deep passing ability that Cockerham lacks, and he possesses much more mobility than Persby in the pocket. The knock on Keller may be his lack of experience and polish at the position, as well as his unfamiliarity playing with the starting unit on a consistent basis.
“My first love is playing quarterback,” Keller said. “I took a lot of snaps and got of lot of repetitions in at practice, so I think I’m ready to play.”
If Keller were to make his first start Saturday, it would seem as if he would be entering a war zone — after all, this game was dubbed a “border war” by Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez. The fans at Madison will be at fever-pitch, and the offensive line doesn’t look like they will be able to stop the defensive front of the Badgers, led by end Tom Burke (15 sacks).
Whoever starts at the helm will need to develop consistency and confidence quickly, just to give Mason and his coaching staff something to work with next season. Right now, the players are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping for a spark from the quarterback position.
“I think (Persby and Cockerham) bring their own styles to the table,” running back Thomas Hamner said. “We run the ball more with Billy at quarterback and pass more when Andy is at quarterback.”
Hamner wouldn’t complain if Cockerham stayed at the helm. Hamner has averaged over 22 carries and 92 yards per game with Cockerham as a starter. In games Persby has started, Hamner’s production falls off considerably with a meager 12 carries per game.
There is no balance between the passing attack and the ground game, no matter who starts. Under Persby, the Gophers averaged an incredible 44 passing attempts per game, and wide receiver Luke Leverson enjoyed a three-game stretch of 30 receptions for 342 yards and three touchdowns.
In the end, it will come down to who is better suited for the offense. Cockerham is the ideal option quarterback in Mason’s offense, but his lack of poise and refined passing skills make it difficult to get the receivers involved in the game. Persby can throw the deep ball, but he can’t move well out of the pocket and often gets hammered in the backfield.
With all of that taken into account, don’t be surprised to see Keller introduced as the starter against Wisconsin.