Mitch Leidner hit the 365 mark last winter, and if that had been his passing yardage per game the Gophers might have been Rose Bowl-bound.
For Leidner, that achievement was his bench press — 365 pounds — after years of dedicated strength training. It’s great to be strong, but Leidner realized his arm flexibility was suffering — not a good thing for a quarterback.
“You don’t want to be lifting crazy bench all the time because you’ve got to take care of the moneymaker,” Leidner said, smiling.
Leidner strategically dialed down his upper-body workouts, one of several fundamentals he scrutinized after ranking toward the bottom of the nation in completion percentage. The junior picked other quarterbacks’ brains, he worked meticulously on footwork, he examined his finger placement and analyzed his grip — all part of his mission to improve his accuracy.
In June, Leidner attended the Manning Passing Academy — Peyton, Eli, Archie and friends — and came back “a different kid,” coach Jerry Kill said, referring to the Lakeville native’s confidence.
The coaching staff recalibrated, too. Kill hired Adam Weber, the school’s all-time passing leader, as a graduate assistant, to help with the quarterbacks. The staff also incorporated ways to speed up the offense and create easier throws, all with the hope of helping Leidner find a weekly rhythm.
The results could define this upcoming Gophers season. Any team’s fate rests with the quarterback and that could be especially true for the Gophers, who need to replace workhorse tailback David Cobb and All-America tight end Maxx Williams.
Last year as sophomore, Leidner delivered strong performances in all five of the Gophers’ Big Ten wins, but fans grew frustrated when he struggled mightily in losses to TCU, Ohio State and Wisconsin. He overcame knee and toe injuries and remained a threat as a bulldozing runner. But his 149.8 passing yards per game ranked 95th nationally among full-time starting quarterbacks, and his 51.5 completion percentage ranked 117th.
“He works to be the best,” Kill said. “He’s tired of hearing he can’t throw the ball. … That motivates you sometimes.”
A detailed study
Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski studied all 115 of Leidner’s incompletions on video and found some common themes:
Footwork: “He’ll tell you, he gets stuck sometimes,” Zebrowski said. “His front leg will lock out when he throws, and he doesn’t get any push from his back leg. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and those guys always talk about how you’ve got to throw with your screws or cleats in the ground.”
Leidner heard it himself at the Manning academy in Thibodaux, La., where he spent four days alongside the likes of TCU’s Trevone Boykin and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg.
“Peyton Manning said, ‘If you’re having an accuracy problem, you’re probably having a footwork problem,’ ” Leidner said.
On the move: Zebrowski said Leidner struggled when he rolled out to his left but was “extremely accurate” on “naked” bootlegs, where the quarterback fakes a handoff and rolls unprotected the opposite direction.
The coaches factored all this into their Citrus Bowl game plan and saw better results against Missouri, even against two of the nation’s best pass rushers, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Leidner found a groove and, all of a sudden, he completed 14 passes in a row, matching Weber’s school record from 2008.
“He was very comfortable in the Missouri game,” Zebrowski said. “And I think we as coaches keep getting better and finding things we can do with him, trying to get other people involved.”
Turnovers: Leidner lost two fumbles against Missouri and later said, “Those killed us.” For the season, he threw 11 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover noted that six of the interceptions came in losses. Speaking generally of turnovers, Limegrover said, “You can survive those against Middle Tennessee but not against TCU and Wisconsin.”
Ease the squeeze
Leidner saw himself on film, looking for receivers with his right arm muscles clenched before he had even begun his throwing motion. He realized his best passes came when that throwing elbow was relaxed before the throw, hanging loose and closer to his side.
Part of it was a state of mind. When Philip Nelson left the program in January 2014, Kill had gathered all the players and told them Leidner was their new leader. Leidner took it very seriously, spending almost every waking moment at class or the football complex.
He had an up-and-down season, overcoming a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and turf toe. After the bowl game, he bunkered himself in the film room again, determined to learn from every 2014 experience.
Yet another adjustment was his approach to his latest offseason. He made more time to rest and relax.
Leidner visited the Boundary Waters in May and made two trips to his family’s lake cabin — one for the fishing opener and one over the Fourth of July. He got his country music fix, seeing Luke Bryan at TCF Bank Stadium and Kenny Chesney at Target Field.
“I think Weber’s been one of the biggest helps with [encouraging breaks],” Leidner said. “He said, ‘You’ve got to get out and enjoy your summer,’ which is something I really didn’t do a lot of last year. It’s nice because you come back recharged.”
As a Mounds View grad, Weber can relate to the pressure Leidner faces playing quarterback in his home state. They were friends even before Weber, 28, took the job. Kill said Leidner had a tendency to get too upset when things weren’t going well last season, and the coach hopes Weber’s even-keeled approach rubs off.
“Mitch has all the physical traits, and now it’s just a matter of seeing that comfort level, seeing him relax a little bit,” Weber said.
Another friend for Leidner is Chandler Harnish, who can relate his own experiences playing quarterback for Kill at Northern Illinois. Harnish, who was cut by the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, said he’s impressed with Leidner’s continued quest to learn.
Harnish sent videos to Leidner this offseason of some of the mechanical drills he was working on. They’ve had detailed discussions, down to the finger placement in their throwing grips. Harnish remembers his own growth between his first and second year as a full-time college starter — his completion percentage went from 55.9 to 64.1 — and sees big things ahead for Leidner, too.
“If you have an exceptional quarterback, you’re going to win a lot of football games,” Harnish said. “And the Minnesota Gophers will go as far as Mitch Leidner can take them.”