The Gophers football team has a quandary. A quarterback quandary, which is not something anyone wants to hear one game into a new season.
As presently constructed, the Gophers are good enough to win the Big Ten West, though Wisconsin remains the favorite until proven otherwise. But as presently constructed, the Gophers’ quarterback’s inconsistency also could cost them a shot at winning their division.
And yet Mitch Leidner is still the Gophers’ best option at this point, emphasis on that disclaimer. At this point, right now.
But for how long?
That’s what the Gophers must decide. Jerry Kill and his staff could face a difficult decision eventually.
The Gophers have a Top 25 defense. That unit is fast and physical and deep. Their secondary is one of the best in college football. Their defense will give them a chance to win most games.
But the offense — Leidner specifically — has to provide more than what it showed in a 23-17 loss to TCU in Thursday’s opener if the Gophers are to separate themselves from Wisconsin and Nebraska in their division.
And that’s where this conversation becomes muddy.
Let’s start with the false premise that the offense’s ineffectiveness in the opener lay solely at Leidner’s feet. That’s neither fair nor accurate.
The whole unit struggled against TCU’s rebuilt defense. It wasn’t just one person. The line, wide receivers, running backs all contributed to their wasted opportunity.
But no one had more to prove than Leidner, who responded with a typical Mitch Leidner performance — some good, some bad and too many wobblers on what should be routine throws.
Basically, nothing we haven’t seen before.
That’s the disappointing part, if not all that surprising. It was beyond naive if anyone actually bought the fairy tale that one week at Peyton Manning’s camp this summer would act as a magic elixir that cured Leidner’s accuracy issues.
The truth is, Leidner’s improvement could only be judged against a real defense in a real game. And after one game, there’s still cause for concern.
That’s not to suggest he can’t or won’t play better. Or that he prevents his team from winning, which is not accurate either, because we’ve seen Leidner complete clutch throws in big moments. Nebraska last season comes to mind.
But he also misfires too many times in critical situations to just blindly assume that things will improve. Because they might not. This could be his true ceiling, as good as it gets — an inconsistent passer who has some really nice moments every now and then.
It’s a constant a tug-of-war between the good Leidner vs. the bad Leidner.
And that’s their quandary.
A popular bar stool opinion is that the Gophers should turn the job over to someone else. The discussion is more complicated.
Backup Chris Streveler is not the answer. He’s a nice athlete, but he’s more of a running back or wide receiver than he is a quarterback. He would be an emergency stopgap.
True freshman Demry Croft emerged in fall camp as an intriguing figure who might find himself in position to play this season.
Croft has good size (6-5) and throws a nice ball with touch. He’s probably a better pure passer than Leidner, but he’s also a freshman, so he’s unproven.
Croft doesn’t have Leidner’s experience, his leadership or his knowledge of the offense. He might not run as effective as Leidner on the read option. He hasn’t won at Nebraska and Michigan.
A switch to Croft would mean the Gophers are starting over with a freshman who more than likely would struggle in his first taste of college football. As appealing as his talent appears, nothing guarantees that he would outperform what Leidner already provides.
So what to do? For now, stay the course, at least through the rest of the nonconference schedule.
Evaluate Leidner’s performance in three entirely winnable games against Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio. None of those defenses should flummox him or the Gophers offense.
See how Leidner performs once his beat-up offensive line heals and the coaching staff makes freshman Rodney Smith the featured back and turns him loose.
If Leidner thrives and shows the kind of improvement that was promised, everyone can breathe a little easier.
But if his inconsistency continues and the offense sputters — even if it’s not all entirely his fault — Kill’s staff will face an interesting decision over how to proceed.
Everyone wants to see Leidner succeed. But the Gophers can’t keep wishing and hoping forever.