Gopher Football: Former players fight for NFL jobs


August 10, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive back Marcus Sherels (35) carries the ball against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Preseason schedule is said to be too long by many fans of the sport. They want the games to count. The games do count for the fringe players that are trying to make the 53-man roster of their NFL squad. Like many standout collegiate football players, the transition from Saturday’s to Sunday’s is difficult and the level of competition to make it to the pros is even harder than that.

The story is no different for alumni of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team. A program that has swayed on the border of mediocrity for years and professional-caliber players have been hard to come by. For the Gopher players that do make it to a NFL training camp, the road is not paved smoothly and often there are bumps to impede their travel.

On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings take on the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 of the 2013 NFL Preseason. A Minnesota alum is trying to represent each team this coming fall when the regular season begins.

Rookie tight end MarQueis Gray is looking for a chance in his first year away from Minneapolis. The athletic specimen has tried almost every offensive position so far in his career between the Gophers and the 49ers. He tested-out with the quarterbacks at the NFL pre-draft combine and was said to best suited to play wide receiver at the next level by scouts in attendance.

In his time at Minnesota, Gray played both as a wideout and a signal caller. Now the coaching staff in San Fran wants Gray to line up on the outside of the offensive line. He has been targeted just once in two preseason games this August and the 13 yard reception he made, moved the chains for a 49ers first down.

His athleticism and versatility is what will likely land him on the 49ers roster this season. According to Matt Maiocco of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, the rookie is worth a flyer on. Maiocco broke down his projected 53-man roster by position and Gray was one of four tight ends to land a roster spot.

"Tight ends (4): Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, MarQueis Gray Davis and McDonald are set. Celek won his way on the team last season, and he’s more game-ready than Gray. But Gray is getting better and better and better. He has a lot of potential, and he’s worth keeping around for a while to develop."

If  the Indianapolis native can make the team, the $405,000 league salary minimum for rookies, would be a drastic improvement over the odd jobs he may have to take if he doesn’t land somewhere in the NFL this season.

It was all set up for Gray to possibly line up Sun. across the field from former Gophers teammate Marcus Sherels. The Vikings signed the Rochester, Minn. native as an undrafted free agent in 2010 to their practice squad. In 2011, he made the 53-man roster as a cornerback, but has primarily handled punt return duties over the last couple years.

Sherels is not in San Francisco for the game Sun. as he will be back in southern Minnesota to attend the funeral of his father. Not a lock to make the team this year, Sherels needed a strong game against the 49ers to keep his stock up with the coaching staff.

It is unclear how this will change the outlook of Sherels making the Vikings roster this season, though he does have full support of head coach Leslie Frazier. “This is life, and I wouldn’t do anything different than what Marcus is doing. You can’t let football override being there when it’s your father,” Frazier told Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “He’s doing the right thing.”

The two players will not get another chance to play against each other in the regular season. A playoff matchup is possible, but not guaranteed. Each player will likely see plenty of time in their final preseason games this year as they try to earn a roster spot.

Gray and the 49ers will take on the San Diego Chargers, while Sherels and the Vikings will host the Tennessee Titans. Both final preseason games are this Thursday, Aug. 29. The same day their alma mater opens the 2013 season against UNLV.

Hopefully for both Gray and Sherels, the road to those final preseason games is smooth and the bumps from training camp will be behind them for their upcoming seasons in the NFL.

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