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Minnesota Gophers vs. San Jose State football. Minnesota quarter amitch Leidner left San Jose State tacklers behind as he rambled for a first half touchdown. (MARLIN LEVISON/STARTRIBUNE(mlevison@startribune.com)

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Souhan: Run-first Leidner starting to look like ... Tundra Tebow?

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • September 22, 2013 - 12:29 AM

In his first start, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner rushed for 151 yards, scored four touchdowns and led the Gopher football team to its most significant victory of the box-of-chocolates portion of the college football season.

Last year, Kansas State’s Collin Klein became known as Prairie Tebow.

Leidner has a chance to become Tundra Tebow.

Tim Tebow — now hosting a late-night infomercial on how not to last in the NFL — popularized the notion of quarterback-as-fullback while leading Florida to a national title. Klein performed a fair impersonation.

Leidner probably isn’t quite ready for a glorifying nickname after one nonconference victory, 43-24 on Saturday over San Jose State, but he borrowed liberally from Tebow’s resume.

He ran over tacklers, pushed crowds of bodies into the end zone, and threw just enough to confirm that the forward pass remains perfectly legal in college football.

The victory, against a tremendous quarterback in San Jose State’s David Fales, established what the Gophers are: A strong and varied running team that has improved on defense and special teams in Jerry Kill’s third season.

If there is any downside to a quarterback running for twice as many yards as he gains passing, it is this: As the Gophers enter the Big Ten schedule, they’re not sure who their starting quarterback is, or whether any of their quarterbacks can throw the ball effectively against quality competition.

Leidner had almost as many rushing touchdowns (four) as completions (five). He completed five of 12 passes for 71 yards and took one sack.

Through four games, Gophers quarterbacks have completed 33 passes, a total that has to make Christian Ponder feel a lot better about himself.

“He doesn’t back down from anybody,’’ Kill said of Leidner. “He’s a physical kid. I will say this: All three of our quarterbacks are ready to play. And they’re all that way.’’

Kill said Philip Nelson remains his starting quarterback. Nelson, Kill said, was at “80 percent’’ effectiveness running and could have handed the ball off in an emergency but wasn’t ready to play. Kill also said he was prepared to pull the redshirt off freshman Chris Streveler if Leidner had been lost to injury.

Usually, uncertainty at the quarterback position causes problems. Kill said that’s not the case here, and for once a coach might be telling the truth about that. Nelson is a strong runner who threw the ball effectively at times last year. Kill goes out of his way to praise Streveler. And Leidner averaged 6.3 yards per carry against a team that seemed to figure out pretty quickly that he was the Gophers’ best weapon.

“Both me and Phil can throw the ball,’’ Leidner said. “But when you have a successful running game, you stick with it. San Jose State threw the ball a ton but didn’t put as many points on the board on us. That says something about the running game.

“We can definitely pass.’’

Saying the Gophers can definitely pass is like saying they’re undefeated. It won’t mean much next week if they can’t win at home against Iowa in one of their most favorable Big Ten matchups.

Kill says Nelson is the starter. Maybe Nelson has earned that. Maybe Nelson is better than Leidner in practice. Maybe, as Kill says, he wants multiple quarterbacks ready to play each game, so each can run without trepidation.

Last year, Kill removed Nelson’s redshirt to press him into duty. That seemed like a strange move at the time, sacrificing a year of eligibility for a talented quarterback in a rebuilding program.

Now it makes sense.

Kill knew Nelson wasn’t necessarily taking over the job for the next four years. He knew he’d have other, perhaps better, options.

Leidner, like Nelson, is a more accomplished runner than passer. Leidner, unlike Nelson, can make yards even when four people are hanging from his neck. Leidner finishes runs like he’s been watching old Larry Csonka tapes.

The Gophers aren’t going to become “Air Jer” in six days, so it might be wise to see if Iowa can stop Tundra Tebow.

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