Conor Rhoda’s journey from nearly losing a scholarship to sharing the quarterback role

Conor Rhoda was told in December his scholarship was getting pulled. Eight months and a P.J. Fleck phone call later, Rhoda is now one of the team’s starting quarterbacks.

Quarterback Conor Rhoda hands the ball to running back James Johannesson during the Gophers' Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium on April 9, 2016.

Maddy Fox

Quarterback Conor Rhoda hands the ball to running back James Johannesson during the Gophers’ Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium on April 9, 2016.

Jack Warrick

At the end of his redshirt junior season with the Gophers, quarterback Conor Rhoda received some bad news — he wasn’t coming back. After former head coach Tracy Claeys told him his scholarship would not be extended in December, he started to look for jobs. 

The quarterback’s phone rang a day after a new head coach was hired — it was P.J. Fleck. Fleck, in his first year as the Gophers’ head coach, saw something in Rhoda and offered him a scholarship for another year with the team. 

Now, Rhoda is back, this time as co-starting quarterback alongside redshirt sophomore Demry Croft ahead of the Aug. 31 opening game against Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium.

Filling the experience gap 

The Gophers’ Holiday Bowl win last year left a void in the team’s offense. Mitch Leidner, a recent signee with the Minnesota Vikings, started almost every game since the 2014 season and finished his career with Gophers football in 2016. 

“I think anytime you play for that long, there’s probably going to be a gap because those guys aren’t necessarily getting the playing experience I was getting,” Leidner said. 

Two quarterbacks will fill the hole this year, as the Gophers have some of the least experienced quarterbacks in the Power Five conferences.  

“We’re going to play them both,” Fleck said. “In terms of the starter they’re both the starter.” 

Croft is a redshirt sophomore, playing in three games in 2015 before redshirting last year. Croft completed seven passes for 34 yards and rushed nine times for 38 yards in his freshman year.

“Obviously, they see great things in both quarterbacks,” Leidner said. “At that point, they want to keep them both on the field and see what they can do.” 

Fleck said the reason for starting two quarterbacks was because neither have true game experience. 

“If I was to tell you I knew exactly how those quarterbacks are going to play in a game, that’s a guess,” Fleck said. “Every time I think I see one nudging someone else out, the other one closed the gap.” 

If Fleck is looking for a Gophers quarterback for the future, Croft has more years of eligibility than Rhoda. However, Rhoda is older and has a start against Maryland, while Croft has none. 

“If we think we’re going to go through the Big Ten and not need two quarterbacks at some point, I think we’re crazy,” Fleck said. 

There is no set ratio for how much each quarterback will play as of yet. Fleck said he wouldn’t let emotions or individual plays influence his decisions on who he selects and when. 

The path to Gophers football 

Rhoda is an Eagan, Minnesota native and alumnus of Cretin-Derham Hall High School, a Catholic private school in St. Paul. 

He has always had a love for sports, and got Division I looks for both football and baseball in high school. 

“Anything that had to do with a ball, he was all over it,” Conor’s father, Jeff Rhoda, said. “He’s always been ultra-competitive, just loves competing, and it didn’t matter what sport it was.” 

He’s been called a pro-style, pocket-passing quarterback, but both his high school coach Mike Scanlan and former starting Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner said he could use his legs as well. 

Rhoda faced a similar situation as he does now when he was competing with the starting senior quarterback while a junior at Cretin-Derham Hall. He would mix in occasionally with the starter until one game when he took the spot for good. 

“I think it was a third down play and nobody was open and he scrambled around and went like 30 yards for a touchdown weaving his way through,” Jeff Rhoda said. “When he came to the sideline, coach Scanlan told him, ‘you’re staying in, you’re the guy.’” 

His high school performance was enough to get him college looks, including a walk-on offer from the Gophers, which he accepted.

Rhoda’s father said in all his sports he played — football, basketball and baseball — he was always in a position on the team associated most with leadership. He played quarterback in football, point guard in basketball and catcher and pitcher in baseball. 

He was also recruited by the Gophers for baseball but chose football. Scanlan said Rhoda was humble, ran as well as he passed and didn’t mind contact.

Inside a fight for starter status 

Rhoda and Croft are used to competing with each other. Last year they competed for the backup quarterback spot. Rhoda took that position and Croft chose to redshirt and keep a year of eligibility. 

“It’s really a relationship that we’ve just been really comfortable with and bringing out the best in each other,” Rhoda said. “It’s going to be something that we’ve never done before as far as trying to do it together, but it’s going to be a process and it’s something I look forward to doing with him.” 

The two have a relationship that pits them against one another, even as they support the same team. “We’re not competing against each other, [but] with each other,” Croft said. “It’s a great thing because now we have more diversity, it’s not so one dimensional.”

Rhoda has one start in college. It came last year at Maryland when Leidner was injured with a concussion.

He had 15 pass attempts, completing seven for 82 yards and a touchdown. He rushed five times for a loss of 8 yards. The Gophers won that game 31-10, giving Rhoda a win in his first attempt as a starter.

“That was really cool to see him be able to achieve that, a goal that he’s had since he’s been a little kid, to be a Division I quarterback,” Jeff Rhoda said. 

Rhoda is one of 10 redshirt seniors on the Gophers. Other than the start in 2016, Rhoda played clean up in two other games in 2016 and two games in 2014. 

“It’s a tough position that he’s chosen to play,” Scanlan said. “To be the quarterback, it opens you up for a lot of praise but also a lot of criticism. That’s all anybody can hope, get an opportunity to show how good you can be.”