Now that MarQueis Gray has graduated and Max Shortell has transferred, the Gophers quarterback depth chart isn’t exactly filled with graybeards.
Returning starter Philip Nelson is 19, and so is the team’s top backup option, Mitch Leidner. Both arrived on campus in January 2012, halfway through what would have been their senior year of high school.
When Gray and Shortell were injured last fall, the Gophers sped up the learning curve for Nelson out of Mankato West, starting him the season’s final seven games.
Meanwhile, Leidner finished out his redshirt year, running the scout team, impersonating the likes of Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Texas Tech’s Seth Doege against Minnesota’s first-team defense.
Gophers coaches were impressed with Leidner’s competitive fire and aptitude then, and they’ve seen it carry over into his first five spring practices. Leidner still has the strong arm he showed running a pro-style offense at Lakeville South, but he’s gotten noticeably stronger and quicker.
“You definitely need to be able to run here, so I had to get faster; there’s no choice,” Leidner said. “On the scout team, you’re running Nebraska’s offense, all those different offenses with running quarterbacks — you learn how to run the ball and set up blocks and read defenders, so it’s good.”
Leidner is 6-4, 233 pounds. In offseason workouts, he bench pressed 330 pounds and squatted 430. In terms of body type and build, Gophers coach Jerry Kill compares him to Collin Klein, last year’s Heisman finalist from Kansas State.
Nelson is 6-2, 215 pounds. He averaged nearly 10 rushes per game last fall and could continue taking a pounding on read-option plays. That means Leidner will have to be ready, in case of injury.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Dexter Foreman is getting very few reps this spring, and freshman Chris Streveler has shown some expected jitters. Streveler graduated from high school early to enroll at the University a semester early, just as Nelson and Leidner did last year.
“Phil got a chance to run our offense the entire year,” Gophers quarterback coach Jim Zebrowski said. “Mitch kind of ran our offense, and then ran everybody else’s. So he’s slightly behind in terms of that stuff, but he can jump into stuff.”
Leidner has made some eye-opening running plays in spring practice. He needs to work on his passing consistency, but he delivered a nice highlight Tuesday, hitting Devin Crawford-Tufts in perfect stride on a long fly pattern.
“If I’m going to throw the vertical route, [Leidner] can do that, and he’ll put it on the money,” Kill said. “But if it’s about reading a lot of coverages, he hasn’t had all that — that’s what he needs to learn. That’s why we’re practicing the way we are. He needs repetition right now and coaching, but again he’s got the skill set to be good.”
The Gophers are happy Leidner has four years of eligibility left after seeing the work he’s done in the weight room and film room the past 15 months.
His brother, Matt Leidner, plans to walk-on with the Gophers this fall after earning second-team All-State honors last fall as a 6-2, 280-pound offensive lineman at Lakeville South.