Jeff Leidner has spent nearly 24 years in the concrete business. His son, Mitch, plays quarterback for the Gophers.
“I’ve got an old construction body,” Jeff said. “I’m a little concerned Mitchell’s going to end up like me.”
The younger Leidner has taken several crunching hits this year, on the field and in the media. Six weeks ago, half of Minnesota seemed to be calling for him to get benched. But Leidner has silenced that talk with four consecutive games of at least 250 passing yards.
Last week, the junior from Lakeville led the Gophers on five long touchdown drives in a five-point loss to undefeated Iowa. Afterward, he was resolute with reporters, insisting his team would rebound from its four-game losing streak Saturday against Illinois.
Then Leidner grabbed a box of fried chicken and headed for the team bus.
“He looked at me and he winked, and he could hardly walk,” Jeff said, marveling. “And he was back at practice Tuesday.”
Keeping it light
Jonah Pirsig is one of Leidner’s roommates and one of the linemen charged with protecting him each week. With three starters injured, it’s been a rough year for the Gophers offensive line.
“When Mitch was getting heat from everyone, it wasn’t because of him, it was because of us,” Pirsig said. “We weren’t giving him the time he needed to throw.”
Leidner’s recent surge has coincided with better pass protection from the offensive line. The coaches have designed plays that give Leidner quicker throws and occasionally move the pocket to keep defenders guessing.
During the bleakest times, Pirsig said the roommates — including Mitch’s younger brother, Matt, and linebacker Cody Poock — found diversions to keep Leidner from letting football consume him. They would go trap shooting or head for a burger at their favorite hangout, Manning’s on Como Avenue.
“Mitch is a character,” Pirsig said. “It’s not often that you have a serious time with him, unless you need to. He’s always making jokes, so there’s never a dull moment with him or with Matt or Cody.”
Leidner is getting used to throwing under heavy pressure. The highlight reel is thick with moments where he’s released the ball and then gotten pummeled.
In the fourth quarter of last month’s loss to Michigan, Leidner got corkscrewed into the turf so violently, the force destroyed his knee brace, shredding all the straps and wrenching the stabilizing bar. At least the brace died doing its job; Leidner’s left knee stayed intact.
Last year, Leidner strained the medial collateral ligament in that knee and played through the injury. He missed one week with turf toe but has started 22 of Minnesota’s past 23 games. Along the way, Leidner has built a legend for pain tolerance.
He played through a broken left wrist during spring practice in 2014 and told almost nobody. Few people knew until they saw him with a cast on his wrist that May. Leidner also dislocated two ribs while warming up with a medicine ball in March. He barely missed a rep that day. Again, that was spring practice.
The hits have taken a toll. Throughout September, Leidner made too many throws off his back foot.
“When you do that, the accuracy’s going to suffer, the velocity’s going to suffer, and then the confidence suffers,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
The low point came in the 27-0 loss at Northwestern on Oct. 3. Under constant pressure, Leidner missed on most of his passes before the coaches inserted his backup, true freshman Demry Croft.
“The game that [Leidner] was the least healthy was probably Northwestern,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “I kind of felt bad for the kid. I knew he was giving everything he’s got.
“After that game, we were like, ‘We’ve got to give these [other quarterbacks] opportunities.’ And all of a sudden, [Leidner] had the best week of practice ever.”
Limegrover said Leidner’s mechanics have gotten progressively better each week, and so has his confidence. He’s using his 6-4, 235-pound body to step into his throws.
Leidner has a 59.4 completion percentage, up from 51.5 last season.
“When you’re getting hit a little bit more than you’d like to, you get into some bad habits,” Leidner said. “I think Coach Z [Zebrowski] and [graduate assistant] Adam Weber have done a good job, helping me overcome that in practice.
“You’ve got to give those guys on the O-line a lot of credit. I’ve been able to get a lot of time to throw back there.”
He still gets drilled from time to time. But as he nears his 22nd birthday, Leidner has learned ways to bounce back more quickly.
“Recovery is so important,” he said. “I feel like some of the young guys on our team don’t really realize that much yet. But I’m the biggest advocate. On Sundays and Mondays, I’m doing everything I can to get my body back.”
“Just rest the body,” he said. “I do a lot of steam room, hot tub, cold tub. I’ll go over to the rec [center] and do a swim workout with the strength coaches. A lot of rolling out [sore muscles], getting a massage — it’s a full-time job.”
The last Gophers quarterback to throw for 250 yards in four consecutive games was Mike Hohensee in 1982. Leidner’s determination is paying off, even if it’s not showing up in the win column. At 4-6, the team needs to beat both Illinois and Wisconsin just to ensure bowl eligibility. But in a lost season, Leidner’s play still gives the Gophers hope.
“Mitchell’s driven,” Jeff Leidner said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to stop that guy. He never gives up. I’m very proud of him because I see his battle pains.”