CHICAGO – Mitch Leidner remembers being in the weight room when he first heard ESPN’s Todd McShay had projected the Gophers quarterback as a first-round pick in his “Way-too-early 2017 NFL Mock Draft.”
“I didn’t really think anything of it,” Leidner said Monday at Big Ten media days. “Coach [Tracy] Claeys always says, ‘You don’t win an award for being a preseason whatever.’ It’s all what happens at the end of the season.”
But considering how much Gophers fans have doubted Leidner at times, the lofty projections by McShay, Mel Kiper and other NFL draft analysts have to feel vindicating, right?
“I don’t think so,” Leidner said. “Because I don’t think I’ve played near what my potential can be. After what I’ve been able to do this summer, coming off the [foot] surgery, I feel like I’m twice as good of a player as I was last year.”
The fifth-year senior is brimming with confidence about the entire Gophers team. Of course, every football team is optimistic in July. The Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten West in the preseason media poll, coming off last year’s 6-7 record.
But Leidner said he senses a real difference. He’s seen it in captains’ practices, and he’s been most encouraged the way the seniors have been organizing team get-togethers. They’ve played paint ball, they’ve gone tubing on the Apple River. They’ve had cookouts. Leidner invited all the quarterbacks and receivers up north to his family’s cabin.
“I’ve been around a lot of teams,” Leidner said. “And what this team has, I just feel like this is a team that can be at the top of the Big Ten.”
Leidner will be a key factor, of course. He completed 59.5 percent of his passes last year, up from 51.5 as a sophomore, and was named MVP of the Quick Lane Bowl.
Two days later, he had surgery to repair ligaments in his left foot.
“We hid his injuries pretty good a year ago,” Claeys said. “He was banged up pretty good. The foot injury he had was tough and really limited him.”
Leidner was close to 100 percent healed for spring practice. He went through passing drills, but the Gophers held him out of 11-on-11 competition.
“Physically, I’m in the best shape of my life, by far,” Leidner said. “I feel like I’m throwing the ball better than I ever have before. … I’ve lost 20 pounds since my surgery. I feel cut up. I have extremely low body fat. I have a lot of energy.”
The 6-4 Leidner said he weighs “230 [pounds], right on the dot.”
“I’m way faster than I was a year ago, way faster,” he said. “I think on our GPS units last year, I was 18-19 miles per hour, not very fast. And now I’m hitting well over 20, closer to 21.”
Leidner attended the Manning Passing Academy, just as he did last summer. But that was different, too.
“Last year I spent a lot of time with the other college quarterbacks who were around,” he said. “This year, we’d go out to dinner at night, and I’d find myself talking to Peyton for hours on end and just picking his brain.”
One thing Manning and Leidner discussed was different ways of “taking care of the O-line.” Leidner’s brother, Matt, is a walk-on center, and right tackle Jonah Pirsig is one of the QB’s best friends. So some of that comes naturally.
But when Monday’s interviews ended, Leidner still was raving about the transformation the Gophers offensive line has made. He said they have worked harder than any position group in the country.
“They’ve completely changed their bodies around,” Leidner said. “I mean Jonah looks unbelievable. His upper body is just huge, and they’re strong.”
This stuff was old hat for Leidner. Claeys was making his Big Ten media days debut, but it was the third appearance for Leidner.
“People recognize him more than they do me,” Claeys said. “So that’s a good thing.”
With new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, Claeys said the Gophers need to get better at playing to Leidner’s strengths.
“I guess we’ll find out what my strengths are in fall camp, because I feel like I’m totally different player than I was a year ago, two years ago,” Leidner said. “This is the best I’ve felt as a quarterback.”