Mitch Leidner was at home in Lakeville, taking a nap Jan. 16, when fellow Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson announced he was leaving the program.
When Leidner awoke, he found a message from Nelson.
“He just texted me, ‘It’s been awesome playing with you. I wish you the best of luck’ — stuff like that,” Leidner said. “So I called him, and he kind of told me the whole situation.”
Their friendship survived a tense competition last year, as the Gophers coaches flipped back and forth between them, searching for a steady hand to run the offense.
Now, the picture is less cluttered. Nelson has transferred to Rutgers, so Leidner is the clear No. 1 quarterback as the Gophers open spring practice Tuesday.
“I just feel like I can take control, and now I just don’t have to worry about anything else,” Leidner said. “I can take this team by the reins and kind of lead the way I always have.”
Leidner was a redshirt freshman last year, but he’s already conducting himself like a captain. With coaches unable to attend offseason passing drills, they have trusted Leidner to run workouts the way they would.
“He’s been awesome,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “I think Mitch looks at himself as the starter, and the undisputed leader of the offense, and probably the team. And so there’s a confidence about him. He’s the guy holding other guys accountable.”
The mission is scoring more points. The Gophers failed to score an offensive touchdown for 13 consecutive quarters before Leidner tossed two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of the Texas Bowl.
Syracuse came back to win 21-17, dropping the Gophers to 8-5. It was a disappointing ending for Minnesota, and it left the quarterback picture murky. Nelson started but struggled badly before Leidner came in and had some success.
“Sometimes it’s tough with two quarterbacks to really get in a rhythm,” Leidner said. “But once you’re out there and you do get in a rhythm, that’s when you start to click.”
The Gophers are counting on Leidner now. Even though he’s short on experience — he has only four career starts — he’s the only one on the roster who’s taken a college snap. Leidner’s backups include redshirt freshmen Chris Streveler and Conor Rhoda, and Dimonic Roden- McKinzy, a true freshman who enrolled early.
“I think Mitch would be the first one to tell you that he’s far from being the uncontested starter because he doesn’t have that much experience,” Limegrover said. “I think he understands that, hey, if someone plays better than him, they’re going to play. That’s the way this group operates as coaches.”
Nelson led the Gophers on their first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years last season, but Leidner might ultimately prove to be the better fit. Nelson kept getting hurt in Minnesota’s read-option offense, while the 6-4, 235-pound Leidner seems to thrive on contact. Leidner also completed 55.1 percent of his passes, compared to 50.5 percent for Nelson, and the Gophers hope Leidner, and the offense around him, will continue improving as he gains experience.
Beyond Nelson, the only key offensive players gone from last year are wide receiver Derrick Engel, fullback Mike Henry and tackle Ed Olson. David Cobb returns as a senior after rushing for 1,202 yards. Tight end Maxx Williams is back after scoring five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.
“We have all of our [offensive] linemen coming back, and that’s where it all starts — up front,” Leidner said. “We’ve got our top running backs coming back, and with the young receivers we have back and the ones in this [incoming] recruiting class, it’s definitely going to be different than last year.”