Saturday’s spring game will give the Gophers another chance to test young quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, but after 14 spring practices, the coaching staff seems less worried about that position than one might expect.
The coaches have seen Nelson channel the hard lessons he learned last season, when he started seven games as a true freshman. They have seen Leidner blossom from a redshirt player to a solid backup option — at least.
“We’ve got a lot of other issues,” coach Jerry Kill said, listing linebacker depth at the top. “But we feel good about the quarterback position.”
Kill said it reminds him of his time at Southern Illinois, when the Salukis had Joel Sambursky and Nick Hill, or Northern Illinois, when the Huskies had Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. Each quarterback grew up fast.
In Nelson’s case and Leidner’s, neither 19-year-old carries himself like a kid one year out of high school. Each graduated from high school one semester early — Nelson from Mankato West, Leidner from Lakeville South — to enroll at Minnesota in time for spring practice last year.
Now, they have been through a full season and two spring camps.
“I feel like I’ve been here for a long time now,” Leidner said. “And I know since Philip’s played, he obviously feels like he’s been here for a long time. So we’re young, but we definitely understand what’s going on. We think we can compete at this level and help Minnesota win some games.”
Nelson trims down
The Gophers went 2-5 with Nelson as their starter last year. He completed 49.3 percent of his passes, with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also carried the ball nearly 10 times per game, finishing with 252 rushing yards.
After the season, the 6-2 Nelson shed nearly 10 pounds, trimming to about 215. He said he “cut off a lot of fat and gained some muscle.”
“When I got here, I had the false mind-set of wanting to put on weight and get bigger for the Big Ten,” Nelson said. “And then I realized that the most dangerous I’ll ever be is by being faster. And the fastest I’ve run in my life was probably when I was in high school, around 215.”
Nelson played through a hamstring injury last year, but it healed during the month leading to the bowl game.
“As the season went on, I thought he got worn down a little bit,” Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “And then all of a sudden in the bowl game — I mean, Texas Tech is fast, but he was making people miss.”
Leidner speeds up
Nelson’s ability to both pass and run was apparent in high school, but the 6-4, 233-pound Leidner was a more traditional pocket passer at Lakeville South.
“Believe it or not, those two kids [Nelson and Leidner] are about the same speed,” Zebrowski said. “… Here’s why I’m so proud of Mitch: In high school, he was a drop back kid, never ran it. He came here and increased his speed. Now he can run away from people, and he’s 233.”
The Gophers will rely heavily on the run this fall, but they’ll need their quarterbacks to keep defenses honest, executing play-action passes. Leidner might have the better arm, but Nelson’s in-game experience has given him a better feel for reading defenses.
Last spring the Gophers had more experience at quarterback with MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell, but their skill sets were very different. Gray was more dangerous with his legs than his arm, and Shortell’s limited running ability made him a misfit for Kill’s offense.
Now, in Nelson, Leidner and third stringer Chris Streveler — an early enrollee from Crystal Lake, Ill. — the Gophers have three options that fit their style well.
“You need two who really, really can play, in case something happens,” Zebrowski said. “And then you want a third guy to keep growing.
“I think those guys are making us feel pretty good about the direction we’re heading.”