For the Gophers, it’s all on Leidner

For Minnesota to contend, its top quarterback must keep playing with confidence.

Jack Satzinger

Five weeks ago, Mitch Leidner didn’t look like a Big Ten quarterback.

Playing with an injured left knee, the redshirt sophomore threw three interceptions against TCU’s athletic defense as the pocket constantly collapsed around him.

Leidner arrived in Fort Worth, Texas, with a left MCL sprain and departed even more wounded — in both his body and mind.

After he went down with turf toe in the second half, his confidence was shaken.

Leidner sat out the next week against San Jose State to get healthy.

Meanwhile, fans took to social media to call out Leidner for his poor play. The Gophers quarterback eventually disabled his Twitter account.

Now healed, Leidner is looking confident and has a mentor to help him develop into a reliable passer. That sort of production could push a Gophers team that’s already strong at running the ball, defense and special teams to become a legitimate conference title contender.

“The biggest thing about Mitch is he’s relaxed. He just went out and played,” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said. “He had a smile on his face and played. I think early in the year he was pressing, and then he got hurt.”

Carrying the weight

When the Gophers entered spring ball, all attention turned to Leidner as Minnesota’s leader.

He commanded respect and didn’t let defensive linemen push him around. Coaches raved about his appetite for the film room.

But in Minnesota’s first three games, Leidner didn’t live up to the hype. He completed just 26 of 54 passes and threw two touchdowns and four interceptions.

Things didn’t get any better when Leidner didn’t start against San Jose State and backup quarterback Chris Streveler completed just one pass for 7 yards.

But that time off seems to have done wonders for Leidner.

“I think one of the biggest things that’s helped Mitch is not playing in the San Jose State game,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “There was a lot of pressure put on that kid, and I think he kind of took it even more as far as the whole weight of the world on his shoulders.”

Redshirt senior receiver Isaac Fruechte said Leidner’s demeanor has been much different over the past few weeks. And the quarterback’s play has reflected it.

“He literally was like a different young man when we went to Michigan,” Limegrover said. “Just how he was on game day and how he was in the huddle … he was out there having fun, and that carried over to last week.”

Seeking out advice

After the 30-7 loss at TCU, Leidner called former Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish for advice.

Harnish played for Kill at NIU before the coach came to Minnesota. He’s been mentoring Leidner for more than a year.

“It’s fun to shed the little wisdom that I have [after] playing for Coach Kill … because I was there,” Harnish said.

Two days after Leidner led Minnesota to its victory at Michigan with 167 passing yards, two total touchdowns and zero interceptions, the Minnesota Vikings signed Harnish to the practice squad.

“Fate allowed me to come up here and play for the Vikings,” Harnish said. “I’ve been able to spend some time with [Leidner].”

Harnish has been regularly attending Gophers practice over the past few weeks, and he helped Leidner study film before facing Northwestern last week.

And for that game, Harnish was also on the Gophers’ sideline, helping Leidner prepare in between drives.

“For whatever reason, I felt like my voice would maybe calm him down a bit or just kind of let him focus in,” Harnish said. “The things I would tell him were very much a mental part of the game plan. Just like, ‘Hey man, right now’s your opportunity to be the guy. Go out — this is when the stars are made.’”

While Leidner put forth one of his best games in a Gophers uniform, completing 66.7 percent of his passes and making the second-longest throw of his college career with a 52-yard dart to Maxx Williams, he wasn’t perfect.

The Lakeville, Minn., native threw an interception in the third quarter that gave Northwestern the ball in good field position.

“I think three weeks ago it would have ate him alive, and it didn’t do [anything] to him,” Kill said of the interception.

After back-to-back contests with a completion percentage above 60 percent and only one turnover, Leidner said it was the best two-game stretch of his career.

“I’m feeling confident,” he said Saturday. “Overall I feel pretty good about both games.”

Finding balance

It’s less than a month into conference play, and local and national analysts have pegged the Gophers as a Big Ten West title contender.

Minnesota has one of the conference’s strongest running games, led by David Cobb, and a stingy defense highlighted by NFL prospects Eric Murray and Damien Wilson.

Kill said multiple coaches on the staff focus on special teams, which has yielded well above-average kicking and punting games.

Still, quarterback is still the most important position in football. If Minnesota makes a run at the Big Ten championship game, it will likely be in part due to Leidner’s improvement.

But people in his corner don’t think the pressure will get to him anymore.

“I think you can really tell over the last couple games, both Michigan and Northwestern, that Mitch is really starting to turn a new leaf,” Harnish said. “Mitch is on that path of a progression where he’s going to be a really good quarterback. It’s a matter of time.”