Mitch Leidner’s goal of playing quarterback for the Gophers didn’t look too promising after his junior year at Lakeville South High School.
The new Gophers football coach, Jerry Kill, already had offered a scholarship to Philip Nelson, a highly touted quarterback in the same class from Mankato West. Kill’s staff told Leidner they wanted to see what he could do — as a tight end.
Leidner humored them as a tight end during a one-day camp. He wondered if he might be a better fit at Iowa. Then, a few days later, things changed.
At a 7-on-7 passing tournament thick with college recruiters, Leidner and his high school teammates spent the day seemingly scoring at will. In the championship game, Lakeville South topped Nelson’s Mankato West squad, with Leidner completing 20 of 21 passes.
“He picked a great day to be as good as he’s ever been in his life,” Lakeville South coach Larry Thompson said. “He’s always pretty good, but he could have hit them that day with his eyes closed.”
Kill had watched the whole tournament and sent word that night, through Thompson, that he needed to talk to Leidner. Soon, Leidner had his own scholarship offer from the Gophers, and it didn’t take him long to accept.
That’s only part of the story, of course, in explaining how Leidner came to be the Gophers’ clear No. 1 quarterback heading into Saturday’s game at Northwestern.
He waited his turn behind Nelson last year, quietly transforming the way he played. And now he’s hoping to boost a Gophers offense that managed a combined 20 points in losses to Iowa and Michigan.
“We’re just overwhelmed that he’s got the opportunity to show what he can do,” said Jeff Leidner, Mitch’s father. “His mother, Carrie, and I have just told Mitch to play his game and good things will happen.”
Watching the 6-4, 233-pound Leidner now — especially the punishing way he runs — and it’s easy to see why the Gophers envisioned him as a tight end.
He had a physical presence, even on the basketball court. It certainly showed during a state tournament loss to Eden Prairie his junior year.
“I had four fouls in probably the first five or six minutes of that game,” Leidner said. “It was bad. I missed a dunk, too. It was just not a great game for me.”
In football, he played some defensive end as a senior, in addition to quarterback, and Thompson said he would have been the team’s best punter, too.
But what Leidner mostly did was pass. He was a traditional pocket passer and can’t recall any of his runs going for longer than 15 yards.
“We didn’t use him as a runner a lot,” Thompson said. “Basically, I needed him, and I didn’t want to bang him up too much.”
Lakeville South also had two future college receivers — Devon Bzoskie (now at St. Cloud State) and Matt Heller (Augustana) — so the Cougars had plenty of success with Leidner passing the ball.
But he came to college appearing more one-dimensional than Nelson, who had established himself as a good passer and a swift runner in high school. That helped speed Nelson’s transition into the Gophers offense.