Mitch Leidner wasn’t the highest-profile quarterback in the Gophers’ 2012 recruiting class. That was Philip Nelson. But quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said he knew the Gophers had something special in Leidner that fall, watching him run the scout team offense.
It wasn’t just Leidner’s throwing arm and surprising speed. It was the way he led.
That August, the Gophers were using the scout team offense to prepare for UNLV. Tensions mounted. When defensive end D.L. Wilhite yanked Leidner to the ground with a horse-collar tackle, Leidner got right in his face — a true freshman staring down a senior. This sparked a brawl as other scout teamers rallied to Leidner’s side.
“After that,” Zebrowski said, “it was like, ‘Dang, don’t mess with Mitch.’ ”
Leidner’s teammates certainly don’t. When Nelson abruptly left the program in January, coach Jerry Kill assembled Gophers players and said Leidner was their undisputed leader.
With Kill’s program at another critical stage of the rebuilding process, Leidner is a major key. After going 8-5 last year, the Gophers believe they will have a stout defense again. Their offensive line has more experience, and the running game should again be strong.
If Leidner and a young receiving corps establish an effective passing attack, the Gophers might contend for the Big Ten West title. But Leidner has made just four career starts. If he sputters, the whole program could move backward.
So for six months, Leidner has run with Kill’s instructions, leading strength and conditioning workouts, film study and captains’ practices. Often, he rose at 5 a.m., and hunkered down at the football complex for 12-hour days.
During film sessions with freshmen receivers, Leidner would take away their cellphones if they got distracted. He could be heard bellowing at teammates during conditioning drills from 100 yards away.
Leidner, 21, is still a redshirt sophomore, but teammates refer to him as “the Boss.”
“I’m more comfortable in this leadership position,” Leidner said. “I’m not scared to get after guys and rip them if I have to. But they’ve all done a really good job. Coach Kill has told us, ‘I’ve never seen a group work like this.’ ”
Born to lead
This is the most clarity the Gophers have had at quarterback during Kill’s tenure. In 2011, they had MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell. In 2012, they had Gray and Nelson. In 2013, they had Nelson and Leidner. Now, there’s a wide gulf between Leidner and No. 2 quarterback Chris Streveler.
And this is actually how Kill’s staff prefers it, going back to his time at Southern Illinois with Joel Sambursky and at Northern Illinois with Chandler Harnish.
“We had to do it [here with two quarterbacks]; we were kind of stuck,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “For three years, there’s been kind of little bumps in that road.
“We finally feel like we’ve gotten to that point with Mitch to say, ‘OK, here you go, big boy. You lead, we’ll follow.’ And I think he’s really taken a huge step forward.”
Leadership comes naturally for Leidner, the oldest of three children in his family, all boys. The middle son, Matt, is a backup center for the Gophers, and the youngest, Jake, will be a junior lineman at Lakeville South.
Their father, Jeff, is a plant operations manager for Cemstone Concrete, and their mother, Carrie, is a registered nurse. Mitch Leidner said he learned his work ethic from his parents, but his father said his oldest son never needed much prodding.
“Even when Mitchell was young, when he put his mind into learning something, he did it,” Jeff Leidner said. “When he came to the U, he wasn’t fast. He could throw, but he wasn’t fast. And the next time I saw him, he had doubled his vertical jump, and he could run.”
Mitch Leidner can trace his football drive to his time as the third-string quarterback for his seventh-grade B team. By eighth grade, he was the A-team starter, but it hasn’t left him, the feeling that there’s more to prove.
Nelson was the first big recruiting triumph at Minnesota for Kill’s staff. After he committed, the Gophers weren’t sure they would take another quarterback that year.
Rivals.com ranked Nelson as the No. 15 pro-style passer in the nation, coming out of Mankato West. Leidner wasn’t ranked. The Gophers were so unsure about Leidner’s quarterback potential they had him work out as a tight end at one of their camps.
A few days later, Nelson and Leidner arrived on campus for a 7-on-7 passing tournament. That day, changed everything for Leidner.
Much has been made of his 20-for-21 passing performance in the championship win over Nelson’s team. But Zebrowski said Leidner put on a show that lasted six or seven games. Zebrowski served as a referee, so he could get a closer look.
“It wasn’t just one moment,” Zebrowski said. “It was the overall day, watching the way he handled himself, the demeanor, just the way he walked and played.
“I’m sure there were incompletions, but I felt like every game he was in, he was just a machine. And we’re like, ‘You can’t let this kid get out of this area.’ ”
Changing of the guard
Nelson started seven games as a true freshman in 2012, while Leidner toiled on the scout team. But that year Leidner blossomed into a 6-4, 237-pound specimen and lowered his 40-yard dash time from 4.9 seconds to 4.6.
That winter, the Gophers held a strength competition to spice up their offseason workouts. During a tug-of-war contest, Leidner got matched up with a linebacker and won with relative ease. Kill chided the linebacker for “getting beat by a quarterback,” and sent another linebacker to do the job.
Leidner overpowered him, too.
Finally, Kill summoned 6-6, 310-pound defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman.
“It was actually closer than I thought it would be,” Leidner said. “But he ended up dragging me across.”
When Nelson injured a hamstring in last year’s third game, Leidner seized his opportunity, completing seven of eight passes to beat Western Illinois. In Week 4, Leidner rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State.
Nelson was the team’s primary quarterback during its first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973. But Nelson also got most of the snaps as the Gophers went 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown.
Leidner ended that drought with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes against Syracuse in the Texas Bowl. The competition looked as if it could linger for two more years, but Nelson transferred to Rutgers before getting arrested for an alleged assault outside a Mankato bar.
By then, the Gophers had moved on with Leidner. Last year, he completed 55.1 percent of his passes, compared with 50.5 percent for Nelson.
This summer, Leidner worked extensively with his receivers and tight ends, establishing timing and making sure they understood the nuances of the playbook. He told them he would be ready any time, day or night, that they wanted to study film or run passing routes.
Player-led workouts are common throughout college football, but Leidner said the Gophers took it to a new level.
“I can go back to a day when I’d come out to captains’ practices and I’d be the only QB there, and that’s when I was a freshman,” Leidner said. “There were times no one would show up. And now, if you’re not there, or if you’re late, you’re running. There’s not really an option.”
Leidner’s summer was far different from his days growing up, when his family would spend every weekend at its lake cabin 130 miles north of Minneapolis. He got there once this summer, he said, over the Fourth of July.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr. holds his annual wide receivers camp at the Gophers facility, and Leidner volunteered to work with several NFL players. He threw passes to Fitzgerald, Dwayne Bowe and Cecil Shorts, among others, and spent time alongside quarterbacks Ryan Mallett, Drew Stanton and Tarvaris Jackson.
“It helped a lot, throwing with some of those QBs,” Leidner said. “I can make all the throws and even be more consistent than some of those guys.”
Add it up, and Leidner feels as prepared as possible for what’s ahead. Any quarterback in his first year as a full-time starter can expect ups and downs. Leidner said his best advice came from Zebrowski.
“I don’t feel any pressure at all, and I thank Coach Z for that,” Leidner said. “He said, ‘You don’t have to do everything this year. Just play your game and let everything come to you.’ With how hard this team’s worked, the wins and losses are going to take care of themselves.”