Mitch Leidner’s college career plunged to a low point last October after the Gophers’ 27-0 loss at Northwestern. Fans wanted him benched. Injuries had decimated his offensive line. And Leidner’s own health was in tatters, with ligament damage in his left foot.
That’s when Adam Weber, the Gophers’ all-time passing leader, sat Leidner down for a talk.
“I don’t think Mitch realized how much I went through similar stuff,” said Weber, now a Gophers graduate assistant coach.
Weber relayed his own experiences, such as the time Tim Brewster demoted him to second string during training camp, in favor of MarQueis Gray. As a Mounds View graduate, Weber could relate to the pressure Leidner felt as a Lakeville native playing in his home state.
“I remember when I was a freshman, people were saying how much they missed [Bryan] Cupito,” Weber said. “But when Cupito was here, they were calling for another guy. They wanted Asad Abdul-Khaliq.”
Weber and Gray left Gophers fans wanting more when they graduated. Well-respected as leaders, each was billed as a difference-maker heading into his final season. Fair or not, each met criticism when his team fell short of expectations.
Leidner opens his senior season Thursday night against Oregon State, with a chance to shape a much grander ending to his Gophers career.
He has several factors working for him. Fully recovered from December foot surgery, he’s down 20 pounds and feels healthier and faster than ever. With new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, Leidner will be in a QB-friendly system, playing behind a retooled offensive line.
“I feel like twice as good of a player as I was last year,” Leidner said.
For those who felt Leidner was underrated, playing beneath the national radar, that changed when ESPN’s Todd McShay projected him as a first-round draft pick (No. 25 overall) in next year’s NFL draft. Other draft analysts have praised Leidner, too, noting his 6-4, 230-pound frame, vast experience and strong upside.
Most important for his Minnesota legacy, Leidner has a good core of talent surrounding him, and the Gophers have a favorable schedule. They’re a good bet to finish with a better record than they had in Cupito’s final season (6-7) or Weber’s (3-9) or Gray’s (6-7).
“Great quarterbacks are judged by how their teams play. They really are,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “Like coaches, they take all the blame when you lose and they usually get the credit when you win.
“If he leads us to a good season, which I expect he will — the type of leader he is, the skills he has — then he’ll be rewarded at the next level.”
With a dose of perspective from Weber after the Northwestern game, Leidner made a late-season surge. He became the first Gopher since Mike Hohensee in 1982 to pass for 250 yards in four consecutive games, and the opponents weren’t slouches — Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa. By season’s end, Leidner had a 59.5 completion percentage, up from 51.5 as a sophomore.
“If you go back and look at the games [Leidner struggled], we didn’t give up many sacks, but there was a tremendous amount of pressure, and he took a lot of hits,” Claeys said, “So a lot of the things early on really weren’t his fault.”
Leidner made his turnaround, even as his left foot — the planting stake in his throwing motion — became progressively more painful. Trainers needed 20 minutes to tape the injury before each workout. He spent a lot of time between games in a walking boot.
The Gophers gave serious thought to having Leidner undergo surgery in early December. He would have missed the Quick Lane Bowl, but he also would have been further along in his rehab for spring practice.
Instead, Leidner took aim at ending Minnesota’s seven-game bowl losing streak, earning MVP honors as the Gophers defeated Central Michigan 21-14. Two days later, doctors repaired the foot, inserting a 7-inch pin (since removed) into one of his toes.
He first hurt the foot Week 3 of the 2014 season at TCU. At the time, he downplayed the injury, but here’s how he described it recently: “It just happened on one play. My big toe was basically floating around in my shoe. Snapped every ligament out of there.”
After the surgery, he used a cane for several weeks as the foot gradually healed. Limited through spring practice, Leidner wasn’t pain-free until July. But even after the rigors of training camp, Leidner said this is the best the foot has felt in two years.
“It’s going to make a huge difference,” he said. “Playing on one foot the majority of last season — and the season before as well — it’s definitely going to help me move around a little bit better, avoid pressure and step up in the pocket.”
Success not guaranteed
In recent Gophers history, it’s been rare to have success congeal around a senior quarterback.
Abdul-Khaliq set the bar high in 2003, when he helped lead Minnesota to a 10-3 finish. His completion percentage spiked from 52.4 as a junior to 63.2. Opponents, however, were much more focused on stopping the future NFL rushing trio of Marion Barber III, Laurence Maroney and Thomas Tapeh.
Those stars were gone by Cupito’s senior season in 2006. He had a solid year, completing 59.6 percent of his passes, but the team’s defense unraveled and Glen Mason got fired. “Your senior year, you feel a lot more pressure,” Cupito said. “You don’t want to lose, just because there’s no tomorrow.”
Weber’s four years encapsulated the Brewster era. The strong-armed quarterback spurred the team’s 7-1 start as a sophomore and finished that year with a 62.2 completion percentage. But that mark shrank to 52 as a junior and 55.7 as a senior. By the time he finished, Weber had been through four offensive coordinators.
Gray arrived with considerable hype, rated as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country by Rivals.com. His only full season as the Gophers QB came in 2011, when he posted a 50.7 completion percentage. He sprained an ankle as a senior, and then-coach Jerry Kill turned to freshman Philip Nelson midway through the season.
Leidner, who took over for Nelson after the 2013 season, is 16-13 as a starter. Fans have seen the ups and downs. They watched Leidner lead Minnesota to upset victories at Nebraska and Michigan as a sophomore. They saw him pull out comeback wins against Purdue, Colorado State and Ohio.
They also watched him complete only five of 18 passes against Wisconsin two years ago and throw three interceptions in last year’s loss to the Badgers.
Leidner, 22, has lived and learned. He looks at Weber as a mentor. He has enjoyed learning the new offense from Johnson, a fellow Lakeville native who was a standout QB at Northern Iowa.
Leidner said he also has regular talks with a sports psychologist in the Bierman building whose services are offered to all Gophers athletes.
“Last season was one of the toughest ones because here I am trying to go as hard as I can, and I’m not getting as much out of my body,” Leidner said. “So just to be able to have that weight off my shoulders and go in with a bunch of confidence to my senior year and really give everything I can to the state of Minnesota — it’s a pretty exciting feeling.”