Mitch Leidner’s goal of playing quarterback for the Gophers didn’t look too promising after his junior year at Lakeville South High School.
The new Gophers football coach, Jerry Kill, already had offered a scholarship to Philip Nelson, a highly touted quarterback in the same class from Mankato West. Kill’s staff told Leidner they wanted to see what he could do — as a tight end.
Leidner humored them as a tight end during a one-day camp. He wondered if he might be a better fit at Iowa. Then, a few days later, things changed.
At a 7-on-7 passing tournament thick with college recruiters, Leidner and his high school teammates spent the day seemingly scoring at will. In the championship game, Lakeville South topped Nelson’s Mankato West squad, with Leidner completing 20 of 21 passes.
“He picked a great day to be as good as he’s ever been in his life,” Lakeville South coach Larry Thompson said. “He’s always pretty good, but he could have hit them that day with his eyes closed.”
Kill had watched the whole tournament and sent word that night, through Thompson, that he needed to talk to Leidner. Soon, Leidner had his own scholarship offer from the Gophers, and it didn’t take him long to accept.
That’s only part of the story, of course, in explaining how Leidner came to be the Gophers’ clear No. 1 quarterback heading into Saturday’s game at Northwestern.
He waited his turn behind Nelson last year, quietly transforming the way he played. And now he’s hoping to boost a Gophers offense that managed a combined 20 points in losses to Iowa and Michigan.
“We’re just overwhelmed that he’s got the opportunity to show what he can do,” said Jeff Leidner, Mitch’s father. “His mother, Carrie, and I have just told Mitch to play his game and good things will happen.”
Watching the 6-4, 233-pound Leidner now — especially the punishing way he runs — and it’s easy to see why the Gophers envisioned him as a tight end.
He had a physical presence, even on the basketball court. It certainly showed during a state tournament loss to Eden Prairie his junior year.
“I had four fouls in probably the first five or six minutes of that game,” Leidner said. “It was bad. I missed a dunk, too. It was just not a great game for me.”
In football, he played some defensive end as a senior, in addition to quarterback, and Thompson said he would have been the team’s best punter, too.
But what Leidner mostly did was pass. He was a traditional pocket passer and can’t recall any of his runs going for longer than 15 yards.
“We didn’t use him as a runner a lot,” Thompson said. “Basically, I needed him, and I didn’t want to bang him up too much.”
Lakeville South also had two future college receivers — Devon Bzoskie (now at St. Cloud State) and Matt Heller (Augustana) — so the Cougars had plenty of success with Leidner passing the ball.
But he came to college appearing more one-dimensional than Nelson, who had established himself as a good passer and a swift runner in high school. That helped speed Nelson’s transition into the Gophers offense.
Last fall, Leidner redshirted while Nelson got the chance to start seven games as a true freshman. But it was hardly a lost year for Leidner. He added 15 pounds of muscle and trimmed his 40-yard-dash time from 4.9 seconds to 4.6.
He ran the scout team offense, impersonating the likes of Northwestern’s Kain Colter, and gradually realized he could run, too.
“He’s probably the only quarterback I know that goes looking for contact,” Gophers running back Rodrick Williams said.
When Nelson pulled a hamstring against Western Illinois on Sept. 14, Leidner got his first extended playing time, rushing for 64 yards and passing for 105. On Sept. 21, Leidner rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-24 victory over against San Jose State.
Nelson came back for the Iowa game the following week, and the offense sputtered in a 23-7 loss. Leidner got the nod against Michigan and did enough to convince Gophers coaches to stick with him, at least for now.
Leidner will start Saturday, but the Gophers intend to give Nelson a few snaps in the first half.
“I think the ideal thing is to go with one quarterback who is our guy, and he is so superior to everyone else on that roster, that everybody knows he’s the alpha male,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “We’ve got two quarterbacks that can do a lot in our offense. There’s no better incentive than competition.”
Through it all, Nelson and Leidner have remained close friends, with a shared goal of making the team better.
“We have really good chemistry together,” Leidner said.
They’re both good students. Leidner had a 3.85 grade-point average in high school and now majors in kinesiology.
What impresses Thompson most about Leidner is his work ethic. Lakeville South’s coach remembers the way Leidner would push teammates — including his younger brother, Matt — in the weight room.
Matt turned himself into a standout high school center, and he is a walk-on freshman this year with the Gophers. Thompson sees that same development coming from the youngest Leidner brother, Jake, a sophomore center at South.
Thompson said, “We always tell our kids, ‘If you work hard at what you do and try your best, you can do anything — look at Mitch Leidner.’ ”