Scoggins: Fleck should give QB keys to Kaliakmanis right now

P.J. Fleck did not announce his starting quarterback in advance of Saturday's game against Northwestern, but this is not one of those agonizing decisions that causes a coach to sleep in his office.

Anyone who watched the Gophers' win at Nebraska last week knows what the answer should be.

The Gophers' dormant offense came to life in the second half under the direction of redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis, who replaced injured starter Tanner Morgan at halftime and provided the spark that turned a 10-0 deficit into a 20-13 win.

The path forward is clear. Let's see what the kid can do the rest of the season.

Morgan's injury status likely makes this discussion a moot point anyway. He was forced from the game for the second time in four outings. He suffered a concussion against Illinois on Oct. 15 and was pulled from Saturday's game after absorbing a big hit right before halftime.

Fleck only disclosed that Morgan suffered an "upper body" injury, but this is now two jarring hits in a month that have prevented him from finishing a game. He needs time to recover and not risk an additional injury that could jeopardize his long-term health.

Calling for a quarterback change in no way diminishes Morgan's legacy. He has been a model representative of the program and university, embodying so many endearing aspects of college sports. He has more wins than any quarterback in program history and has conducted himself with nothing but class and genuineness.

But he's ailing physically, and the offense functioned more effectively and has more potential with Kaliakmanis running the operation.

Fleck practically gushes whenever he's asked about his freshman quarterback.

"Athan has this incredible confidence," he said. "He has 'It'."

That "It" quality gave the Gophers a modern-looking offense in the second half against Nebraska.

They demonstrated a vertical passing game that had been missing, with deep-ball completions of 45 and 38 yards. Kaliakmanis kept the ball on run-pass-option (RPO) plays in rushing for 27 yards on three carries. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca utilized pass concepts that moved the pocket and allowed Kaliakmanis to showcase his strong arm and athleticism.

The offense had balance rather than hoisting the full weight onto Mohamed Ibrahim's sturdy shoulders. Kaliakmanis' passing softened up the defense for Ibrahim's sledgehammer running, a new twist that makes the offense far less predictable.

Kaliakmanis' running ability gives the offense a different dimension. Having that threat will be important when facing aggressive defenses against Iowa and Wisconsin.

Kaliakmanis looks the part in physical stature (6-4, 210 pounds) and arm strength. He just needs experience. That should be a primary objective for the balance of this season.

The young quarterback needs game reps. He needs to work through mistakes and build confidence. The offense likely will evolve based on his skill set, so this final stretch is important training ground.

Fleck's staff needs to prioritize wide receiver in recruiting. The Gophers could use an infusion of talent at that position. That includes scouring the transfer portal for receivers with experience. Being able to show Kaliakmanis' arm strength and the idea that the offense will feature more balance should be part of the sales pitch.

Next season's schedule provides even more incentive to get Kaliakmanis as much experience as possible. The 2023 slate is daunting.

Both Ohio State and Michigan come on the schedule. A nonconference road game at North Carolina. Division road games at Iowa and Purdue.

Would you rather Kaliakmanis tackle that schedule having five starts, including a bowl game, on his résumé, or enter 2023 still considered a newbie?

Easy answer, right?

The stakes remain relatively high for the Gophers in November after a three-game losing streak in October left them playing catch-up in the Big Ten West. They need to salvage their season with a strong finish. The outcomes of their top two rivalry games will determine how their season gets shaped.

Those two games present inherent pressure and emotion and intensity. That is an ideal scenario to let Kaliakmanis gain more hands-on insight into what awaits him next season.