Mitch Leidner will take the field Thursday night as the Gophers starting quarterback in the season opener. No matter how he plays, he won’t need to look over his shoulder.
The revolving door is shut.
The Gophers have one quarterback this season. No more of the quarterback-by-committee approach. No more shared duties. No more ambiguity.
The job is Leidner’s alone, to succeed or fail.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to have all the guys look up to me as their leader,” he said.
Any discussion aimed at predicting how Leidner will fare as the No. 1 quarterback remains pure guesswork. The sophomore attempted only 78 passes last season. That’s not exactly an extensive résumé.
Reviews of his performance in fall camp were mostly positive. Coaches talk optimistically on and off the record about Leidner’s development. But in the absence of more evidence, he still qualifies as a relative unknown entering the season.
At least he’s secure in his role now. And his teammates know unequivocally that Leidner is the quarterback. That’s an important distinction for any team.
Jerry Kill has lacked this clarity at the most important position in his three seasons in Dinkytown, which seems antithetical to rebuilding a program. Kill has dramatically improved the defense and instilled some discipline and toughness, but constant change at quarterback has prevented any hope for continuity.
Four quarterbacks shared the position in Kill’s first three seasons: MarQueis Gray, Max Shortell, Philip Nelson and Leidner. In 2012, three of those quarterbacks started at least three games.
Gray was a wonderful athlete and respected leader, but he battled injuries and lacked accuracy as a passer. Shortell proved to be a bad fit for Kill’s scheme and subsequently transferred.
Nelson’s arrival sparked grandiose expectations, but he struggled under that spotlight. The pressure of a quarterback rotation last season appeared to bother Nelson to the degree that he looked distracted in the bowl game. He threw wildly in completing only two of seven passes and then asked for his scholarship release soon thereafter.
Kill has coached 38 games at Minnesota. He hasn’t had one quarterback start half of those games. Leidner will become his third different quarterback to start a season opener.
Fluidity is fine at other positions, but that amount of instability at quarterback disrupts chemistry and creates some awkwardness with respect to leadership roles.
“We’ve learned to adapt,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said, “but I think for the kids there’s a clear voice in that huddle. When those kids were seeing a different face in the huddle every game or every couple of series in a practice, I think it gets daunting for them.”
Quarterback platoons can work in the right situation. Some teams have utilized them effectively. Kill even had success with that model in previous stops. But a tag-team arrangement generally isn’t ideal, if avoidable.
The quarterback carries such responsibility that his leadership works best when not divided. And rotating quarterbacks on game day often becomes a clunky exercise that does more harm than good.
“It’s nice to get rolling a little bit, get into a rhythm,” Leidner said, “rather than going a couple of series and then get taken out and then maybe going back in later on in the game.”
Leidner will get the opportunity to play this season knowing he’s not forced to share the job with anyone else. One staff member described the situation as a return to “normalcy.”
One quarterback takes first-team reps. One quarterback leads drills. One quarterback raises his voice when needed. This is how it should work.
“After the bowl game, I knew I was going to come back and take over at that point,” Leidner said.
Injuries at quarterback have forced Kill’s hand in making some of those changes. Gray and Nelson missed time because of injuries. But even when healthy at that position, the Gophers haven’t always enjoyed clear separation between starter and backup.
They face a different circumstance this season. Leidner starts the season without a viable backup. Technically, freshman Chris Streveler is No. 2 on the depth chart, but he’s not pushing Leidner for playing time.
The Gophers can’t afford to lose Leidner, which means they must be smart in their approach. Leidner finished second on the team in carries (102) last season. It will be reckless if the Gophers repeat that.
Their season hinges largely on Leidner and his development. Can he succeed as the starter? That’s to be determined. The job is firmly his though, and stability will be a welcomed change.