For Gophers to contend, Leidner needs to level up

The passer will have to improve consistency if the team wants to shoot for a division title.

Ben Gotz

Mitch Leidner found himself in Iowa the first weekend of June in 2011, chasing his college dream.
The soon-to-be high school senior worked out at quarterback for Iowa, but the program was noncommittal on his 
status.
So the next week, Leidner went back and worked out for the Hawkeyes again.
Dedication has never been an issue for the passer, now in his second season as Minnesota’s primary starter. And while the Iowa offer never came, the redshirt junior has proven he can be a competitive Big Ten football player.
All that’s left to find out is if he belongs leading a division title contender.
“I think he’s one of those kids who’s going to give you everything he has,” Minnesota quarterback coach Jim Zebrowski said prior to the season. “I think he has room to improve, and he’s worked hard to do that, but that’s the fun thing. I can’t tell you where it’s going to go to, but hopefully it keeps going the way it’s been.”
One big day
Leidner’s collegiate career has been in focus ever since he became Minnesota’s starter before the 2014 season.
But without one big day in the summer of 2011, Leidner may never have thrown a pass for the Gophers.
Head coach Jerry Kill and his staff weren’t looking for a quarterback at the time because prized in-state passer Philip Nelson had already committed to the 2012 recruiting class. When Leidner attended a Minnesota camp that summer, he lined up at tight end.
But at Minnesota’s annual 7-on-7 high school passing tournament on June 25, 2011, he lit it up.
Even Nelson’s team fell to Leidner and his high school squad, Lakeville South.
“You couldn’t have done any better than what he did,” Lakeville South head coach Larry Thompson said. “I think he completed 95 percent of his passes that day. Long ones were right on the money, and he was drilling it right in between seams.”
Before long, Zebrowski showed up to watch. Soon, Kill was in the audience. By the end of the tournament, Thompson estimated 12 Minnesota coaches were there spectating.
“It was like ‘Wow, he picked a good time to have a great day,’ ” Thompson said. “It all happens really quick sometimes.”
Soon Leidner was invited to campus to watch film and not long afterward, he was given a scholarship 
offer.
The only other offer Leidner ever received was from Northern Iowa, but he wanted to stay close to home where people could watch him play, Thompson said.
By spring, both he and Nelson had graduated high school early and were ready to practice.
“Phil picked up stuff really fast. Mitch didn’t,” Zebrowski said. “Not in a bad way; it’s just how people learn.”
Nelson played as a true freshman while Leidner redshirted. The two traded playing time back and forth the next season, though, and on Jan. 16, 2014, Minnesota announced that Nelson was transferring.
In fewer than three years, Leidner had gone from tight end prospect to Minnesota’s starting quarterback.
Up and down
Just as Leidner’s career progressed, so did the program under Kill.
By the time Leidner took over the starting job, the roster was ready to contend in the Big Ten.
He both helped and hurt his team’s cause, making sharp throws in victories over Iowa and Nebraska but sputtering in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin.
In the seven games the Gophers won with Leidner starting last year, he had a passer efficiency rating of 154.06. In the team’s four regular season losses, his rating was 77.22.
“Mitch is a hard-nosed, tough kid. [He’s an] intense competitor, but sometimes that can get the best of you,” Kill said. “If you have a turnover or something goes wrong, that’s what we’ve got to teach Mitch is just stay level.” 
When things go wrong, Leidner tends to push too hard, and things can fall apart. That’s been the story for most of his football 
career.
At a fall camp scrimmage Aug. 20, Zebrowski saw signs of progress. The offense started out slow, but rather than getting frustrated, Leidner heated up and threw two touchdown passes.
“That was the best of the scrimmage watching him kind of understand ‘I’m at camp; I’ve got to keep fighting through,’” Zebrowski said.
In the team’s season-opening 23-17 loss to No. 3 TCU, a similar progression took place. The first half was filled with turnovers and failed drives for Minnesota, but its offense brought the game within a score with 1:32 to go.
Leidner finished the game with an efficiency rating of 110.99, right in the middle of his averages in wins and losses from last season.
The gamer
Whatever criticism comes his way, Leidner is unlikely to hear it. He deactivated his Twitter account last year after it became too negative, and he no longer has a Facebook.
“I don’t have any social media,” Leidner said. “I don’t hear any of it, and I kind of like it that way.”
Those on social media have never been his 
biggest critics anyway.
“He doesn’t like to be average. And I think that’s a thing that drives him, always to keep working harder,” Thompson said. “The hardest thing is he beats himself up because he’s got such high expectations of where he wants to play.”
To meet his own expectations, Leidner trains often and makes sure his receivers know where he wants them to be every play.
Leidner worked to improve his mechanics and footwork this offseason, the latter improved upon by a few drills he picked up after spending time in June as a counselor at the Manning Passing 
Academy.
“He’s coming in 6:30 every morning, watching film,” senior wide receiver KJ Maye said. “We’re doing a lot of extra work, receivers [and] quarterbacks.”
Toward the end of camp, running back Rodrick Williams compared Leidner to someone playing a video game — the first couple times you play things are tricky, but soon you settle in and gain confidence.
“I see the same thing,”
Maye said. “The reason that he’s so confident is because he’s been preparing so hard.”
If Leidner never becomes a consistent quarterback, it won’t be for lack of trying.
Building off Missouri
In the Gophers’ first game against TCU, Leidner threw the ball 35 times.
It was more than he had thrown in a game all of last season. Zebrowski wanted to make it an emphasis to pass on earlier downs this year after he saw what it could do for Leidner in last year’s bowl game.
The Gophers lost 33-17 to Missouri in the 
Citrus Bowl, but Leidner was sharp, completing 21 of his 31 passes for 258 yards.
“I think throwing the ball earlier in that game, we completed some balls, kind of got more in a rhythm, which helped him out throughout the game,” 
Zebrowski 
said.
It’s a performance Zebrowski thinks he can build off of, and if he does, the Gophers could end up the favorites in the West 
division before long.
Jerry Kill thinks this year’s defense could be his best at Minnesota. The Gophers have running backs. They have strong special teams.
All it needs is the 
quarterback.
“It’s just a matter of us getting to that level of consistency,” Leidner said at Big Ten media days. “Especially me personally, being consistent every single game.”