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Continued: 'Boss' Leidner grabs hold of No. 1 quarterback spot at U

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 3, 2014 - 3:35 PM

“Even when Mitchell was young, when he put his mind into learning something, he did it,” Jeff Leidner said. “When he came to the U, he wasn’t fast. He could throw, but he wasn’t fast. And the next time I saw him, he had doubled his vertical jump, and he could run.”

Mitch Leidner can trace his football drive to his time as the third-string quarterback for his seventh-grade B team. By eighth grade, he was the A-team starter, but it hasn’t left him, the feeling that there’s more to prove.

Nelson was the first big recruiting triumph at Minnesota for Kill’s staff. After he committed, the Gophers weren’t sure they would take another quarterback that year.

Rivals.com ranked Nelson as the No. 15 pro-style passer in the nation, coming out of Mankato West. Leidner wasn’t ranked. The Gophers were so unsure about Leidner’s quarterback potential they had him work out as a tight end at one of their camps.

A few days later, Nelson and Leidner arrived on campus for a 7-on-7 passing tournament. That day, changed everything for Leidner.

Much has been made of his 20-for-21 passing performance in the championship win over Nelson’s team. But Zebrowski said Leidner put on a show that lasted six or seven games. Zebrowski served as a referee, so he could get a closer look.

“It wasn’t just one moment,” Zebrowski said. “It was the overall day, watching the way he handled himself, the demeanor, just the way he walked and played.

“I’m sure there were incompletions, but I felt like every game he was in, he was just a machine. And we’re like, ‘You can’t let this kid get out of this area.’ ”

Changing of the guard

Nelson started seven games as a true freshman in 2012, while Leidner toiled on the scout team. But that year Leidner blossomed into a 6-4, 237-pound specimen and lowered his 40-yard dash time from 4.9 seconds to 4.6.

That winter, the Gophers held a strength competition to spice up their offseason workouts. During a tug-of-war contest, Leidner got matched up with a linebacker and won with relative ease. Kill chided the linebacker for “getting beat by a quarterback,” and sent another linebacker to do the job.

Leidner overpowered him, too.

Finally, Kill summoned 6-6, 310-pound defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman.

“It was actually closer than I thought it would be,” Leidner said. “But he ended up dragging me across.”

When Nelson injured a hamstring in last year’s third game, Leidner seized his opportunity, completing seven of eight passes to beat Western Illinois. In Week 4, Leidner rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State.

Nelson was the team’s primary quarterback during its first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973. But Nelson also got most of the snaps as the Gophers went 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown.

Leidner ended that drought with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes against Syracuse in the Texas Bowl. The competition looked as if it could linger for two more years, but Nelson transferred to Rutgers before getting arrested for an alleged assault outside a Mankato bar.

By then, the Gophers had moved on with Leidner. Last year, he completed 55.1 percent of his passes, compared with 50.5 percent for Nelson.

  • Five keys for Leidner

    Stay healthy: Leidner tweaked an ankle against Northwestern last year but was otherwise unscathed, despite ranking second on the team with 102 rushing attempts.

    Establish targets: Maxx Williams and Drew Wolitarsky are likely go-to guys, but others need to emerge. Donovahn Jones? KJ Maye? Melvin Holland?

    Find a rhythm: Leidner did against Western Illinois (going 7-for-8) and Michigan (14-for-21), as well as for key stretches against Syracuse.

    Avoid sacks: Leidner was sacked four times by Syracuse after three times the previous game by Michigan State. Experience should help him recognize those dangers.

    Avoid turnovers: Leidner threw only one interception in 78 passing attempts, but an opening drive fumble at Michigan and two more fumbles at Indiana should remind him to protect the ball.

    JOE CHRISTENSEN

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