Gophers focused on improving passing attack

Minnesota ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards last season.

Minnesota redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner talks to the press at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. Since Philip Nelson left the Gophers in January, Leidner has been Minnesota’s unquestioned leader.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Minnesota redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner talks to the press at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. Since Philip Nelson left the Gophers in January, Leidner has been Minnesota’s unquestioned leader.

Jack Satzinger

CHICAGO — Throughout last season, the Gophers claimed that having two capable quarterbacks in Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner was a positive.

“You can play two kids that can run your offense,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said in September 2013 of Minnesota’s quarterback situation.

Entering the 2014 campaign, Nelson is out of the picture and Leidner is Minnesota’s team leader. Now, the Gophers are saying that having one signal caller could help them take the next step as a football team.

“I think [in] the past, we’ve always made a decision on a quarterback and probably didn’t do that enough a year ago,” head coach Jerry Kill said Monday. “And I think when you know you’re going to be the guy, it’s a little bit different.”

When Leidner first came to Minnesota two years ago, he said he was wide-eyed. Being the sole leader at  quarterback has made him swell with confidence.

“I’m comfortable here,” he said. “I know the offense, I know what’s going on and I’m in charge of this team.”

Limegrover, Kill and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski have all gushed about Leidner’s leadership during the offseason. Despite being a senior, running back David Cobb also appears to be fine with letting Leidner, a redshirt sophomore, run the team.

“He’s done a lot of film work; he’s gotten stronger,” Cobb said. “You can tell. Look at his face; he means business.”

If Leidner’s offseason focus pays off, the Gophers should be a much-improved passing team moving forward. Minnesota ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards last season with 1,925 — more than 600 yards shy of the next-worst team.

Leidner should help build continuity with the Gophers’ receiving corps. Minnesota’s wideouts are young and unproven, but they should improve after being thrown into the fire last year.

Sophomore Donovahn Jones switched from quarterback to receiver at the start of the 2013 campaign and has become one of Leidner’s top targets.

“Now he’s had a long time to work on those receiver skills, which has definitely helped him, and he’s an athletic kid,” Leidner said of Jones. “He’s going to go up and get the ball for us.”

Drew Wolitarsky joined the Gophers last season, and he holds multiple California high school receiving records. But it took him a while to adjust to the Big Ten game in his freshman year, which culminated with a touchdown reception in the Texas Bowl.

And while the duo of Jones and Wolitarsky could blossom into a serious air threat for Minnesota moving forward, KJ Maye might be Minnesota’s top receiver this season.

Gophers senior safety Cedric Thompson has faced the junior in practice and said he’s impressed.

“He’s gotten stronger; he’s gotten faster,” Thompson said. “KJ Maye has been working his tail off. You’ll see a lot of improvement.”

Minnesota will likely need improvement from all receivers and Leidner if it expects to improve on the eight wins it had last year.

The Gophers bring back a stout running game anchored by Cobb and a veteran offensive line. Minnesota’s defense is solid up front and deep in the back.

But the Gophers will face a tougher schedule this season, including a game against Ohio State and road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska, so improving on last season’s record will be difficult without a more efficient passing attack.

Minnesota doesn’t plan on moving away from its identity as a ground-and-pound football team.

“They [power run] so much that they about knocked out one of my ribs,” Michigan State defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said of playing the Gophers last season. “They’re that one team that regardless is going to run the power.”

But more production through the air could be the difference between another eight-win season and a season of nine or 10 victories.

“We’re gonna run the ball; we’re gonna be physical. I think everyone knows that,” Cobb said. “This year we’ll be more explosive with the passing game. Our receivers and Mitch, they came into the offseason and got 10 times better.”