Mitch Leidner learned mechanical tips this summer at the Manning Passing Academy. The Gophers quarterback also learned the importance of unflinching confidence.
Peyton Manning told one story from his freshman year at Tennessee. His father, Archie, had said if he got the chance to play, he should bounce right into the huddle and say, "I'm only a freshman, but I'm going to lead us down the field and score."
Peyton was a third-stringer, but he had his father's words memorized. Sure enough, Todd Helton and Jerry Colquitt were injured, forcing the Vols to play Manning against Ole Miss. He joined the huddle and started in: "I'm only a freshman, but I'm going to…"
"The right tackle grabs him by the facemask and goes, 'Hey, shut up and call the play,' " Leidner said, retelling the story this summer. "So Peyton was like, 'Thanks, Dad.' "
For some Leidner critics, the trip to the Manning Academy has become a punchline, especially after Saturday's 10-7 nail-biter over Kent State. Leidner completed 17 of 27 passes but threw two interceptions, as the offense again sputtered for long stretches.
Leidner has been inconsistent on the field through the Gophers' 2-1 start, but the junior has shown consistency with his off-field demeanor, staying outwardly confident.
The Gophers had true freshman Demry Croft warming up Saturday, but Leidner played the entire game. Afterward, coach Jerry Kill repeatedly said he wasn't commenting about the quarterbacks. Leidner typically speaks to the media after every game, but that day, the team declined to make him available.
Leidner didn't skip a beat Tuesday, coming to the team's weekly news conference. He showed up wearing his navy blue hat from the Manning camp.
"I have a ton of confidence in myself," Leidner said, with his shoulders held high. "I haven't lost that, that's for sure. … I'm a leader of the team, been a captain for two years now, and you've just got to keep getting better every single day.
"I look at this as an opportunity for me to just keep continuing to strive to be great with this football team and my teammates."
Heading into Saturday's game against 3-0 Ohio, the Croft speculation lingers in part because Kill still hasn't addressed the question. During Tuesday's Big Ten teleconference, the coach was asked if he's evaluating the quarterbacks any differently this week.
"I'm not going to make a — we have enough media here that comments on the quarterback," Kill said. "And right now, our issue … we're not playing as good of offense as we'd certainly like to, and a lot of that has to do with where we're at up front on the offensive line.
"We've just got to get some continuity up front. And we're not running the ball like we've run the ball here. … That's probably the biggest problem we have."
Through his first three games last year, Leidner compiled these numbers: 25 completions, 54 attempts, 46.2 completion percentage, four interceptions, 362 yards, two touchdowns. He strained a knee ligament against Middle Tennessee State and returned to have the worst performance of his career at TCU.
His numbers this year are better across the board: 59 completions, 107 attempts, 55.1 completion percentage, two interceptions, 614 yards and four touchdowns. But then there's the eye test. Leidner has a bigger load to shoulder, with Maxx Williams and David Cobb in the NFL, and the Gophers rank 123rd out of 128 FBS teams in scoring, at 16.7 points per game.
"I'd be disappointed if the expectations weren't higher this year because we are a better football team than we were last year," Leidner said. "And it's taken a few games to get rolling here, but eventually we'll find our groove.
"Because last year, the first few games definitely weren't pretty for us, as an offense. But we'll find it and we'll get better. It's a long season."