(Gopher Sports) — The University of Minnesota Gophers will have two starting quarterbacks for their season opening matchup against Buffalo, but back in January it was not guaranteed that either Conor Rhoda or Demry Croft would be staying in the Maroon and Gold.
During a coaching transition, hours can seem like days and days can seem like months and during that time Demry Croft was contemplating his own future. Then he met P.J. Fleck and those lingering thoughts went away. Croft remembers Fleck telling players they could leave but after hearing him talk, Croft knew he was set on staying.
“Meeting Coach Fleck and his staff was a great feeling,” Croft said.
Rhoda’s story was a little more complicated. He was told by the previous staff that he would not remain on scholarship if he stayed. So when the lights came to a dim at the Holiday Bowl after a big victory, Rhoda’s football career was supposed to be over.
“It was known. I had graduated, had my degree, went through senior day, the banquet and I knew that was the last time I was going to wear a Minnesota jersey and thought it was the last time I would ever play in a game,” Rhoda recalled.
Fleck, who was hired on Jan. 6, 2017, had other plans.
“I woke up to a call at 7:30 a.m. in the morning on Jan. 7.” Rhoda said. “I started talking a little with Coach Fleck on the phone. It was all so unexpected so I told him, `you know what, I am just across the street so I am just going to walk over and talk about this in person.'”
After a 45-minute conversation Rhoda’s life had been changed. Not only did Fleck tell Rhoda he would have a chance to compete for the starting quarterback job, but he told him how he would change his life outside of football.
Starting in the spring and through camp, Croft and Rhoda have kept the mindset that they are competing together rather than against each other. They have both improved as camp has gone on which is important considering Minnesota enters the season with the least experienced quarterbacks among any Power 5 team. Rhoda and Croft have combined to make eight appearances and one start. South Carolina is the only other Power 5 school whose quarterbacks have also combined to make eight appearances, but they have seven starts on their roster.
“Every time I think I see one nudging the other out, the other one closed the gap and passed him.” Fleck said recently. “And they’ve continued to do that. That tells me that both of them deserve to play.”
Before making that public statement, Fleck had called both Croft and Rhoda into his office to let them know his decision for the Buffalo game.
“It was a very fulfilling moment,” Rhoda said. “It was something that I was told very often would never happen whether that be when I decided to walk on, getting here and throughout my time here.”
“The first thing I did was smile because that has always been a dream of mine,” Croft said. “I tried to hold it in as much as possible but it was a blessed feeling.”
Croft redshirted last season but played in three games as a freshman in 2015. He completed 7-of-17 passes for 34 yards and rushed nine times for 38 yards. He describes his game as different because while he is known for having the ability to run he loves to sit back and pass which is what he believes makes him a strong fit in offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense. The Rockford, Ill., native’s first collegiate play came in front of hometown fans at Northwestern and is a moment he will never forget.
“At first I didn’t believe it happened until I heard my name on the loudspeakers,” Croft said with a beaming smile.
Thursday night will provide another memorable moment for Croft who is excited to play again under the lights.
“Night games bring back so many memories,” Croft said. “I even remember a pee wee football championship game that I played at night, so just to have that night game feeling again will be nice.”
Rhoda has played in five career games and is 8-17 for 88 yards and one touchdown. He made his first and only career start at Maryland last season and completed 7-of-15 passes for 82 yards and one touchdown. He describes his game as balanced and believes his biggest strength is knowing what defenses are going to do before they do it. Starting and beating a Big Ten foe on the road last season is a moment Rhoda was told would never happen when he first walked on at Minnesota.
“Once that moment came it was like ok that whole process and everything I went through was all worth it,” Rhoda said. “I played with a lot of close friends of mine who aren’t on the team anymore. It was really something that I will remember the rest of my life.”
Croft and Rhoda have both overcame adversity and earned the right to start against Buffalo.
“I think running out of the tunnel that first time is going to be pretty special,” Rhoda said.
“The 2017 Minnesota football season is about to be very exciting,” Croft echoed. “Everybody should sit down and row the boat.”