A glowing display weeks ago deemed Mitch Leidner fit for a Gophers scholarship, stoking confidence for his senior season at Lakeville South.
Mitch Leidner’s collegiate destiny after high school is set, so all that’s left for him to do is produce a final winning season as quarterback at Lakeville South. A marked improvement from his junior-season highlight tape earned him a call, and eventually an offer, from new Gophers coach Jerry Kill.
The late-night ring of a phone call can be a parent's worst nightmare. When their child's future is on the other line -- in a good way -- it's a dream come true.
Around 11 p.m. on June 26, Mitch Leidner received a hurried message from one of his football coaches at Lakeville South: Jerry Kill wanted to talk.
Not in the morning or sometime later in the week. Right that instant.
So Leidner, a 6-4, 225-pound senior-to-be quarterback for the Cougars, dialed the 10 digits that sealed his immediate post-high school plans.
"He just told me that he hadn't stopped thinking about my performance; that he hadn't seen anything like it in 28 years," Leidner said with an almost embarrassed smile, recalling how he had dazzled the coach in a passing tournament. "He wanted me to come back."
By that Wednesday, the Gophers locked up a solid verbal commitment from yet another in-state recruit. What they and everyone else saw that warm Saturday was Leidner put on a display worthy of a paid education.
Though 7-on-7 passing leagues have been around for some time, they've become what AAU is to summer basketball with national tournaments conducted annually. During one standout game, Leidner had only one incompletion. By one observer's calculation, he had one drive all day that did not result in a touchdown.
"You could not have played any better," Lakeville South coach Larry Thompson said. "Every game he was awesome. I'm thinking, 'Gol, I've never seen him play like this.' I think they were really impressed by how he stepped up under pressure and really put on a show. It was really pretty cool."
Even two months later, the words gushed out of Thompson's mouth as if Leidner had led the veteran coach to a state championship.
Alas, it was only one long day of football. But that one day still has people talking.
"He made the right decisions and accurate throws -- the two most important things for a quality quarterback," said Mankato West senior quarterback Philip Nelson, whose team lost to Lakeville South in the 7-on-7 championship game that day. "Why wouldn't you go after a quarterback like that?"
Nelson, too, has committed to the Gophers. He and Leidner don't know one another except from a mutual link on Facebook, but that's about to change.
"There's not any tension or anything," Nelson said. "You want competition at every position because that's going to bring out the best in everybody else."
A family affair
Competition is nothing new to Leidner. He and two younger brothers -- Matt and Jake -- have worn out the family's basketball hoop from all the dunking attempts over the years. For the first time since their earliest days in pads and helmets, Matt and Mitch will be on the same field this fall.
Matt, a 6-1, 225-pound junior, will start the season at center for the Cougars.
"We've been working on it every day and there's some chemistry there," Matt Leidner said. "It puts a lot of pressure on me, because if I screw up he can yell at me and not get in trouble, you know?"
Thompson doesn't foresee that being a regular occurrence.
"Both of these kids work harder than any guy we've got on this team," he said.
Once Lakeville South's basketball season ended last March -- ever the aggressor, Mitch Leidner has been known to foul out of a game or two, and did against Eden Prairie in the Class 4A quarterfinals -- the focus turned solely to football.
Mitch worked out with teammates, including a trio of speedy receivers in Matt Heller, Devon Bzoskie and Tyrone Powell, and with a trainer in downtown Minneapolis.
Leidner got stronger, which helped his stock as a tight end and initially caught the eye of the Gophers staff.
Then they saw him throw.
"They liked me getting my nose in there," as a tight end, Leidner said. "But at quarterback is when they really saw I could play."
Leidner's stats as a junior -- 2,097 yards with 17 touchdowns and another six scores on the ground -- weren't mind-blowing. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds. But ...
"[Kill] recognizes talent and character," Thompson said. "It's a whole lot better to get an in-state kid that cares. When Mitch was at that tournament, Jerry Kill stood by me for three games just talking -- he's a good 'ol boy, I consider myself to be a good 'ol boy. And I told him, 'Coach, I think he can be a great quarterback but I know he's going to be a great student, he's going to be a quality citizen and you can live and die with guys like that because they will battle 'til the end.'
''The coolest thing for me to see is it working out for [Leidner], because I'm not sure a lot of people thought he'd be a [D-I] quarterback."
With Nelson in the mix and the Gophers already having true freshman Max Shortell to back up MarQueis Gray this season, he might not be. But Leidner's stock has risen enough that as the prep football season dawns, he is clearly one of the area's top players to get to know.
"Right now, I want to have a really successful senior year," he said. "But when that's all said and done, it's going to be hard work every single day to get it done. [Minnesota] didn't offer me after they saw my junior highlight tape, but then they see me going into my senior year and how much better I've gotten. And their mouths just dropped."