With Athan Kaliakmanis ‘inconsistent,’ Gophers look for QB in portal

The Gophers needed quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis to step up and fire a bullet in the second half of Saturday’s game against Wisconsin.

Trailing 21-14 in the third quarter, the Gophers faced third-and-7 from the Badgers’ 42-yard line. Kaliakmanis had plenty of time to throw, and an open receiver was available for a big first-down conversion.

But Kaliakmanis’ pass sailed well over Elijah Spencer’s head. FS1 cameras captured head coach P.J. Fleck slightly shaking his head and crossing his arms over the missed opportunity, while Kaliakmanis put his hands on his helmet.

After that off-target throw, the Gophers punted, Wisconsin scored a touchdown on the next drive and went on to win 28-14 and recapture Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

That play had plenty of companions in Kaliakmanis’ first full regular season as a starter. He completed only 53 percent of his passes (156 for 294) for 1,838 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 12 games.

On fourth down in Saturday’s fourth quarter, Kaliakmanis threw wide of Chris Autman-Bell on a go route and the U turned the ball over on downs. Late in the game, Kaliakmanis was flushed out of the pocket, thew an interception and was shook up as he was smacked into the turf by a Badgers’ pass rusher.

“Inconsistent,” Fleck said of Kalaikmanis’ play in 2023. “I love him as a person, and I thought he did a lot of great things this year. I thought a lot of things as a Big Ten quarterback he knows he has to get better at. That was to be expected, maybe not at the rate at some (areas).”

Kaliakmanis, a sophomore, has two more seasons of eligibility, but the Gophers are looking to add a quarterback via the NCAA transfer portal. The U has offered a scholarship to New Hampshire graduate transfer Max Brosmer; he is the first known player the Gophers are pursuing.

This process will heat up as the transfer portal officially opens to all players on Dec. 4 and closes Jan. 2.

The Gophers’ current backup QB Cole Kramer has eligibility for 2024, but the Eden Prairie native participated in Senior Day and might leave the U this year. Third-string QB Drew Viotto is a true freshman, while Drake Lindsey of Fayetteville, Ark., is the QB commit coming in the 2024 recruiting class. The Gophers didn’t bring in a QB the year after Kaliakmanis, a four-star prospect, signed in 2021.

Fleck wasn’t willing to put the entire passing-game struggles on Kaliakmanis this season. “We got a lot of dropped passes in there,” Fleck said Saturday. “We got a lot of missed blocks in there. There are a lot of things like that.”

Kaliakmanis, who had a curtailed high school career in Illinois before relieving Tanner Morgan as the Gophers’ quarterback late last fall, was asked earlier this month about what he views as his welcome-to-the-Big Ten moment. He referenced his first start in front of more than 100,000 fans for the “White Out” game at Penn State last season, but he also went broader in his response.

“I think I go through that every time I play,” Kaliakmanis said. “There are things that I’m still seeing for the first time, new things … that I’m like, ‘That is a lot different.’ But I’d say — this really isn’t a specific moment — but it’s just realizing I can’t do the things I used to do. This is a different game. This is a different speed, different coverages. I can’t abandon the small things.”

Kaliakmanis has been forced to navigate three different offensive coordinators/quarterback coaches in his three seasons at Minnesota. This season, OC/QB coach Greg Harbaugh Jr., has tried to work on Kaliakmanis’ understanding of the offense at a higher level, while Kaliakmanis refines the best process to prepare each week.

A head-scratching aspect with Kaliakmanis is that he regularly has made on-target throws in practices; that’s why the coaching staff was so high on him going into this season. It hasn’t carried over to games enough. Kaliakmanis’ passer rating (115.17) is 100th in the nation this season, and his completion percentage (53) is outside the top 100.

“I’m nowhere near where I want to be, or where I’m going to be,” Kaliakmanis said before the Ohio State loss. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I know that. It’s hard, but it’s true. I have a lot of work to do this offseason. … But that’s what gets me going.”

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