Abdul-Khaliq turning into Gopher leader

Quarterback could be Big Ten's best pass-and-run threat

Knight Ridder Newspapers

MINNEAPOLIS -- Asad Abdul-Khaliq's presence has been requested, but after a brief television interview he stalks toward the University of Minnesota football team's locker room as if he's in a snit. He shakes his head. No, he's not going to talk.

Then, an instant later, he pivots, smiles and saunters over, happy to oblige. The brief impersonation of uncooperative superstar is done, but it was pretty transparent to begin with.

The junior quarterback is affable, always has been, and he's finally the unquestioned starter and burgeoning leader for the Gophers. After a protracted struggle, it appears to be time for fun and games.


To review, Abdul-Khaliq has been the heir apparent, the fallen starter, a gimmick player, the winner of a quarterback duel, the fallen starter redux, the season's-over-anyway starter and now, finally, the No. 1 Guy, no questions asked. Sisyphus has less trouble getting to the top.

"I've been through it all now," Abdul-Khaliq said. "I've sat behind quarterbacks. I've been in and out. I've been low; I've been high. I wouldn't say there's nothing I'm not prepared for, but there's nothing I haven't seen."

This will serve the Gophers well when the season begins Saturday against Division I-AA Southwest Texas State. Depending on whom you speak with in Minnesota's camp, the game of musical quarterbacks last season was either easily ignored or a huge pain in the rear. Either way, uncertainty at quarterback has a way of trickling down to everything else.

But the gray areas have receded this fall. And that has enabled Abdul-Khaliq to catch hold of the leadership reins that every quarterback must grasp.

"He seems very comfortable," Gophers coach Glen Mason said. "He doesn't make very many mistakes, and he takes better charge of everybody."

It took two years

Taking two years to develop a quarterback is probably more the rule than the exception in college football. And Abdul-Khaliq clearly had it down at the end of last season, passing for 584 yards and six touchdowns in the final two games, when, as Mason said, "it all fell into place."

For a player as physically gifted as Abdul-Khaliq--he could be the Big Ten Conference's best pass-and-run threat--the obstacles were mostly mental. The biggest hurdle was a long memory.


"I'm the type of guy where if I'd throw an interception, I'd just be down," Abdul-Khaliq said. "As a quarterback, you can't do that. It'll just mess you up the rest of the game. You can't go into the game thinking about the last play. I've been working on that this whole summer. Now, if I throw an interception -- don't get me wrong, I still remember I did it -- but I'll forget about it and think about the next drive."

The change is palpable.

"The biggest difference with him is just confidence," offensive tackle Jeremiah Carter said. "He's a completely different person this year as far as how confident he is -- in leadership, in taking control of the huddle, calling the play, knowing what to do in every situation. It's night and day."

Named co-captain

There was enough change that Abdul-Khaliq ascended to team co-captain as a junior this season, along with cornerback Mike Lehan. Abdul-Khaliq has forced himself to be more vocal with teammates as opposed to his career-long tendency to be a guy who would "do more by actions."

Minnesota needs plenty of both this season, and the signs suggest it might get them. On one of the first days of training camp in August, during a passing drill, Abdul-Khaliq overthrew a wide-open Ben Utecht across the middle. It was one mistake in one early practice and hardly a critical moment.

But as soon as Abdul-Khaliq returned to the huddle, the rest of the Gophers heard the magic words: "Sorry, guys, it's not going to happen again. Give me time and I'm going to pick them apart."

It sounded strong, believable. It sounded like a voice worth following.


"You need to have confidence in your leader," offensive tackle Jake Kuppe said, adding that Mason talks about how Abdul-Khaliq has to be the only one talking in the huddle, "and I think more than ever this year, he's the only one talking. We're focused on him and what he's telling us to do. His voice is the only one in the huddle. His voice is the one we're listening to."

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