Mitch Leidner took another step in the Gophers’ concussion protocol Tuesday, donning full gear and practicing for the first time since he suffered the head injury Oct. 8 against Iowa.
But coach Tracy Claeys said it’ll be difficult for Leidner to be ready to start Saturday, when the Gophers play Rutgers on homecoming at TCF Bank Stadium.
Since Leidner had been cleared for light activity only Tuesday, Conor Rhoda continued getting the first-team reps, coming off his first career start at Maryland.
“I expect it’ll be Conor’s game again,” Claeys told KFAN (100.3-FM). “He did a great job last week, and we’ll be fine.”
Rhoda completed seven of 15 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in the 31-10 victory at Maryland. He said he was gearing up for another start against Rutgers.
“I’m preparing like I do each week to be ready to play,” Rhoda said. “And we’ll just see what happens from there.”
Under the athletic department’s Concussion Management Plan, an injured athlete is regularly monitored by the medical staff, until symptoms subside. Then, after passing an ImPACT cognitive exam, the athlete must take several more steps without a recurrence of symptoms before being cleared to play.
The steps include, a) light aerobic exercise, such as riding an exercise bike; b) sport specific activity, such as lifting; c) noncontact practice.
That’s where Leidner was Tuesday. The next step would be, d) unrestricted training — which in Leidner’s case, would mean being part of 11-on-11 drills, etc.
Barring a setback, it sounds as if Leidner could be fully cleared Thursday, but that’s not a full-speed practice day for the Gophers.
“It’s going to be hard for him to take enough reps and do all of that,” Claeys said. “We put a lot more on the quarterback’s plate now than what we have in the past [with decisions at the line of scrimmage], and you need to practice.
“So I’m not saying that he won’t [play], but I think it’s extremely difficult.”
A week ago, life without Leidner was a scary thought for the Gophers. Rhoda had played in only three college games, completing one of two passes for 6 yards.
Even though Rhoda didn’t light up the stat sheet at Maryland, he avoided turnovers. He led two key drives — the two-minute drill that led to his screen-pass touchdown to Shannon Brooks with 14 seconds remaining in the first half. And the 12-play, 6 ½-minute drive that ended in a field goal, stretching the lead to 17-0 right after halftime.
“I felt confident and comfortable going into that [game],” Rhoda said. “But now, after going through that whole experience, it just gives me a ton of confidence. I know it gives the rest of the guys confidence in me, too.”
Rhoda built off the momentum he gained in spring practice, when Leidner was recovering from foot surgery, leaving the first-team reps to Rhoda and Demry Croft.
That was a daily learning experience for Rhoda, who had spent most of his time with the Gophers running their scout team. Saturday brought some real-time lessons, too.
For example, one of the offense’s four pre-snap penalties came when Rhoda saw a blitz coming and tried changing the play at the line of scrimmage.
Rhoda said that one “was on me” and chalked it up to experience.
The lesson being: “We have a good play called, and if the blitz gets it that time, it gets it,” Rhoda said. “But we will at least move on and not have to take that 5-yard penalty.”
Claeys acknowledged that the Gophers became “very conservative” with their play-calling once they had a 17-0 lead, with injuries mounting on the offensive line. Rhoda had just led those two key drives, but after that the Gophers attempted only two more passes.
“Conor’s capable of doing a lot more things than that,” Claeys said.
Saturday appears to be Rhoda’s next chance.