Being a starting quarterback for a Big Ten football team is more than just taking the snaps, reading the defense, deciding to run or pass and dodging 300-pound behemoths trying to separate the ball from the QB.
The role — and honor — involves leading the team, being a spokesman and doing the extra work involved in the sport's most prominent position. While coach P.J. Fleck might be the face of the Gophers program, the person sharing the spotlight with him is his starting quarterback.
That distinction now falls to Athan Kaliakmanis, the third-year sophomore who begins his first full season as Minnesota's starter on Thursday night against Nebraska. After serving as Tanner Morgan's understudy last year and filling in ably when concussions sidelined the four-year starter, Kaliakmanis takes the controls for the Gophers as they navigate a season of change. It's a responsibility he's worked for, embraces and takes on eagerly through the ups and downs to come.
"There's gonna be times I make mistakes, but I always look forward to growing and learning new things about myself, trying new things, seeing what's gonna work, what's not gonna work," Kaliakmanis said during the Gophers' trip to the Minnesota State Fair last week. "Just learning more about my strengths and learning more about my weaknesses. And I just love building new relationships."
One of the biggest relationships Kaliakmanis will build is with the Gophers-watching public. He'll be called upon to assess the team's play — good or bad — and do so by being patient, thoughtful and understanding even when his instinct might be to pull back. He's just starting to be a Gophers go-to guy when dealing with the public and media, and his personality is starting to come out, as he showed during a name, image and likeness (NIL) fishing excursion to the Otter Tail Lakes area in June.
Teammates, though, already know his personality, and they speak of a competitor with a fire that burns bright.
"A lot of people say, to be great, you have to be different. Tanner is one of my best friends, and he and Athan are similar in a lot of ways," said Gophers center Nathan Boe, a sixth-year senior who will be snapping the ball to Kaliakmanis. "But Athan is a little bit different, too, and I think that's a really good thing. He likes to talk about Kobe Bryant a lot. He's a little more silent, but when he steps out on the field, everyone listens to him, and he's got a little swagger to him."
That swagger has served him well with the Gophers. Minnesota went 3-2 last year in games Kaliakmanis started. Included in that was a second-half comeback from a 10-point deficit at Nebraska when he replaced an injured Morgan and guided the Gophers to a 20-point second half in a 20-13 win.
In that victory at Nebraska, Kaliakmanis showed off his dual-threat abilities on Minnesota's TD drive that tied the score 10-10. First, he connected with Daniel Jackson for a 45-yard gain to the Huskers 41-yard line. On the next play, Nebraska bit hard on a fake handoff to Mohamed Ibrahim, and Kaliakmanis kept the ball, scampering for a 16-yard gain to the 25.
Those sneaky quick feet give the Gophers a big edge over Morgan in the run-pass option game. Kaliakmanis averaged 4.1 yards on his 34 carries last year, while Morgan produced only 1.6 yard per carry in the same number of attempts.
Building a future
Kaliakmanis' best game last year came against Wisconsin, when he led the Gophers back from a three-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 23-16 win over the Badgers, securing ownership of Paul Bunyan's Axe for the second consecutive year.
On his way to passing for 319 yards, Kaliakmanis hit Jackson down the sideline in tight coverage for a 34-yard gain that set up the tying field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Then he found Le'Meke Brockington on a slant pattern for a 45-yard TD connection for the decisive points with 3:40 to play. Kaliakmanis was almost apologetic for making the throw into a tight window.
"I probably shouldn't have done it," he said then, "but I'm happy I did."
So was coach P.J. Fleck, who this offseason has watched a redshirt freshman grow into a sophomore poised to lead.
"His command of the team," Fleck said when asked to describe Kaliakmanis' biggest improvement. "He's grown up exponentially with his leadership, his commitment to the entire football team, not just himself. When you're a young player, you're worried about just you and doing the right thing. It takes a lot of energy, and it takes a lot of focus.
"… The one thing I love about him is he and Cole [Kramer, backup QB] both have just been students and sponges of the game this entire offseason," Fleck added.
Kaliakmanis will use all that knowledge he's soaked up since the 2022 season ended and apply it to Thursday. He'll take the field at a sold-out Huntington Bank Stadium in the season opener against a Nebraska team with just as much to prove as he and his Gophers teammates. He's excited and thankful for the opportunity but also carries the conviction that he's ready to do his job well.
"I have a lot of confidence in myself, a lot of trust in myself," Kaliakmanis said. "It's really [doing] what the game needs, what the coaches need and my teammates, too. I'm willing to do whatever it takes."