Reusse: One QB or two? Gophers might have options

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2013 - 7:42 AM
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Quarterback Philip Nelson (9) could have some competition in the name of Mitch Leidner, left

Minnesotans learned lessons for football and life during Bud Grant’s nearly two decades as the steely-eyed visage of the Vikings. The latter included his send-off to the Metrodome crowd on Bud Grant Day when he said, “Thank you for not smoking.”

We also were taught two things as far as football and injuries: One, a player doesn’t lose his job because of an injury; and two, durability is as important for a player as ability.

My reading on this was if you were an asset to the Vikings and got knocked out of the lineup once, maybe twice, because of injury, then Rule 1 applied. If the injuries came with regularity, then Bud moved to Rule 2, and the player was soon gone.

Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ defensive coordinator, was serving as spokesman for the coaching staff over the weekend. He was asked where the Gophers might be headed at quarterback, with Mitch Leidner’s impressive effort in relief of injured Philip Nelson in Saturday’s 29-12 victory over Western Illinois.

Claeys said all players are aware of the Gophers’ “injury policy,” because it’s in a team manual only slightly thicker than owner Zygi Wilf’s notorious 77-page good conduct manifesto directed at the Vikings several years ago.

A university employee tried to find the policy in the manual and finally reported: “In short, we are going to play who we feel are the best players. We will put the best 11 players on the field.”

Yeah. That was pretty much Bud’s injury policy, too.

Nelson and Leidner were early arrivers to the university in January 2012. Nelson was a top recruit from Mankato West, and Leidner was an intriguing prospect from Lakeville South.

Nelson became the starter in the middle of last season as a true freshman. Leidner remained a redshirt who ran the opponents’ plays in practice. Nelson maintained his status as the starter by outplaying Leidner through August preseason practices.

And now Nelson might have to beat out Leidner again, after Nelson left the WIU game because of a strained hamstring.

Leidner completed seven of eight passes for 105 yards and rushed 17 times for 64 yards. He’s 6-4 and close to 240 pounds now, and his brute strength on keepers helped take the fight out of the Fighting Leathernecks.

Leidner will have the duty again Saturday against San Jose State as Nelson continues his recovery.

“The thing about Mitch, he’s a big young man,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said this week. “He reminds me of the kid from Kansas State who played last year. He’s built like [Collin Klein], runs like him.

“Having good quarterback play from two young men, that’s important and that helps us be more aggressive, frankly.”

Is there a possibility this could turn into a two-quarterback system once Nelson is fully healthy?

“At Northern Illinois [in 2010, Kill’s final year there] … we had Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch,” he said. “We didn’t play Jordan 50 plays or anything, but with the run game, the quarterback takes some hits. If we needed Jordan to come in and run the ball, and also throw it, we did that.”

Leidner’s fondness for keeping the ball was such that offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover took away that choice a few times last Saturday.

“Mitch is a big guy and I think he likes contact,” Limegrover said. “We started to make sure there were some plays where it wasn’t an option for him to pull the football. … You have to have ways to say, ‘OK, big fella, we know you want to have an impact on this game, but let’s make sure we’re keeping this thing balanced and not working you to death.’ ”

Leidner’s 17 carries put more dents in WIU’s defenders than on him. Later, he answered reporters’ questions, accepted congratulations from family and friends and eventually wound up back in his residence, watching the game on television.

Who was with him? “I was alone,” he said. “It was fun to watch, but there were a couple of plays where I made the wrong read … and the fumble on the goal line, that wasn’t good. My overall reaction was that I have to get better.”

If the “big fella” gets much better, Kill and Limegrover will have themselves a quarterback controversy next week, when Nelson is healthy and Iowa is coming to town for the Big Ten opener.

 

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com

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