ORLANDO – Isaac Fruechte had a message for Mitch Leidner’s critics after the Citrus Bowl.
“I would tell everybody this, and I don’t really care because I’m done [playing for the Gophers],” said Fruechte, a senior receiver. “But if any fans or any boosters or anybody ever got mad with that kid, I would like to personally talk to them.”
The unfailingly polite Fruechte wasn’t fuming, but he was adamant. He said Leidner is the first player to arrive at the football complex each day and the last to leave, whether he’s lifting weights, working with receivers or spending extra hours poring over film.
“The kid is exactly what you want in a quarterback,” Fruechte said. “He’s a great kid. He works hard. He deserves everything he gets and more.”
Gophers fans might have been a little more convinced Thursday, even after the deflating 33-17 loss to Missouri.
Leidner had completed just 37 percent of his passes in the final three regular season games. His first pass against Missouri was incomplete but he followed that with 14 consecutive completions, matching the school record set by Adam Weber against Bowling Green in 2008.
Fourteen in a row was quite a leap; Leidner completed 13 passes combined against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Leidner finished 21-for-31 (67.7 percent) Thursday for a career-high 258 yards and a touchdown. He also was accountable for his turnovers.
“Those two fumbles killed us,” he said.
But Leidner’s performance was the one thing Kill kept coming back to in the postgame news conference, after acknowledging the loss could sting for days.
“Our future is good,” Kill said. “It’s great to see Mitch take a step forward. I think for everyone that covers us [in the media], that’s been a big question.”
It’s been a big question for anyone following the Gophers.
At this time a year ago, Leidner had fans optimistic. He came off the bench to throw for two fourth-quarter touchdowns in the Texas Bowl, stopping a streak of 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown for the Gophers.
The Gophers blew a late lead and lost to Syracuse, but Leidner’s performance gave the whole team a lift heading into the offseason. By mid-January, Philip Nelson announced he was leaving the program.
Kill told the team Leidner was its new leader, and the Lakeville South grad galvanized the offense through its rigorous offseason conditioning program and captains’ practices. He practically lived at the football complex, and he’s ready to do it all again.
His sophomore season had painstaking moments. He overcame a sprained MCL and turf toe to lead the Gophers to five Big Ten wins for the first time since 2003.
“I’ve been through a lot of different situations this year that I hadn’t been through in my high school career and early on in college,” Leidner said. “Being behind and having to come back and win. Being ahead and having to maintain a lead. Just being able to get those experiences under my belt helped me progress as a quarterback.”
Leidner, already a team captain for 2015, didn’t need a good Citrus Bowl performance to save his job. Some fans might have sought a replacement, but the coaching staff didn’t.
Still, the coaches had to feel better about their quarterback situation leaving Florida than they did when they arrived.
Kill said Leidner made progress in the 15 bowl practices and noticed the difference in the way he checked down to find open receivers. Leidner could have added at least 25 yards to his passing total if Berkley Edwards hadn’t dropped one with the Gophers trying to come back in the fourth quarter. Leidner also overthrew Fruechte deep when he got open on a post pattern.
“If we make those shots, the game is different,” Kill said.
Next season Leidner will be without Fruechte, NFL-bound Maxx Williams and Donovahn Jones, who was dismissed from the team last week. But KJ Maye and Drew Wolitarsky will give him two veteran receivers, and the Gophers are eager to unveil three receivers who redshirted this year — Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland Jr.
Meanwhile, Leidner can review the Citrus Bowl and study the things he did right.
“This is the way I know I can play,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep building from this.”