Mitch Leidner wasn’t the highest-profile quarterback in the Gophers’ 2012 recruiting class. That was Philip Nelson. But quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said he knew the Gophers had something special in Leidner that fall, watching him run the scout team offense.
It wasn’t just Leidner’s throwing arm and surprising speed. It was the way he led.
That August, the Gophers were using the scout team offense to prepare for UNLV. Tensions mounted. When defensive end D.L. Wilhite yanked Leidner to the ground with a horse-collar tackle, Leidner got right in his face — a true freshman staring down a senior. This sparked a brawl as other scout teamers rallied to Leidner’s side.
“After that,” Zebrowski said, “it was like, ‘Dang, don’t mess with Mitch.’ ”
Leidner’s teammates certainly don’t. When Nelson abruptly left the program in January, coach Jerry Kill assembled Gophers players and said Leidner was their undisputed leader.
With Kill’s program at another critical stage of the rebuilding process, Leidner is a major key. After going 8-5 last year, the Gophers believe they will have a stout defense again. Their offensive line has more experience, and the running game should again be strong.
If Leidner and a young receiving corps establish an effective passing attack, the Gophers might contend for the Big Ten West title. But Leidner has made just four career starts. If he sputters, the whole program could move backward.
So for six months, Leidner has run with Kill’s instructions, leading strength and conditioning workouts, film study and captains’ practices. Often, he rose at 5 a.m., and hunkered down at the football complex for 12-hour days.
During film sessions with freshmen receivers, Leidner would take away their cellphones if they got distracted. He could be heard bellowing at teammates during conditioning drills from 100 yards away.
Leidner, 21, is still a redshirt sophomore, but teammates refer to him as “the Boss.”
“I’m more comfortable in this leadership position,” Leidner said. “I’m not scared to get after guys and rip them if I have to. But they’ve all done a really good job. Coach Kill has told us, ‘I’ve never seen a group work like this.’ ”
Born to lead
This is the most clarity the Gophers have had at quarterback during Kill’s tenure. In 2011, they had MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell. In 2012, they had Gray and Nelson. In 2013, they had Nelson and Leidner. Now, there’s a wide gulf between Leidner and No. 2 quarterback Chris Streveler.
And this is actually how Kill’s staff prefers it, going back to his time at Southern Illinois with Joel Sambursky and at Northern Illinois with Chandler Harnish.
“We had to do it [here with two quarterbacks]; we were kind of stuck,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “For three years, there’s been kind of little bumps in that road.
“We finally feel like we’ve gotten to that point with Mitch to say, ‘OK, here you go, big boy. You lead, we’ll follow.’ And I think he’s really taken a huge step forward.”
Leadership comes naturally for Leidner, the oldest of three children in his family, all boys. The middle son, Matt, is a backup center for the Gophers, and the youngest, Jake, will be a junior lineman at Lakeville South.
Their father, Jeff, is a plant operations manager for Cemstone Concrete, and their mother, Carrie, is a registered nurse. Mitch Leidner said he learned his work ethic from his parents, but his father said his oldest son never needed much prodding.