Looking back now, the most important game in Mitch Leidner’s development as a quarterback might have been the one he missed.
The Gophers sophomore was beat up mentally and physically after making four turnovers in a loss at TCU on Sept. 13. He had turf toe and a sprained MCL in his left knee, so coach Jerry Kill turned to Chris Streveler the next week against San Jose State.
Leidner watched the Gophers win 24-7, despite completing only one pass.
“There was kind of an aha moment, like, ‘OK, I don’t have to do this all myself,’ ” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said Tuesday. “He literally was like a different young man when we went to Michigan. He was out there having fun.”
Leidner kept the good times rolling against Northwestern last week, and suddenly the Gophers are 2-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2004. They’ll need him to be sharp again Saturday when they play a Purdue team that scored 69 points the past two weeks against Illinois and Michigan State.
Sure, it’s a small sample size, but in conference games, Leidner ranks third in the Big Ten in pass efficiency, at 141.0. He has completed 64.9 percent of his passes (24 of 37), has one interception and three touchdowns (one passing, two rushing).
Missing the San Jose State game gave Leidner extra time to heal his injuries. He also realized something.
“There’s no sense trying to be perfect because no quarterback in this game’s perfect,” Leidner said. “Just go back to how I was last year, just having fun playing, rather than trying to be perfect.”
As much as the Gophers coaches love Leidner, they worried that he’d put too much pressure on himself this year, as a hometown kid playing the most demanding position in sports. Last year, Leidner had some great moments as a freshman when he was sharing time with then-sophomore Philip Nelson.
When Nelson left the program last January, Kill assembled the players and told them Leidner was their new leader. Leidner happily shouldered that responsibility through all the offseason workouts, but when the games started, he was squeezing too tight.
Asked if he ever told Leidner to relax, Kill said, “Every coach on our staff did, including our defensive coaches.”
Leidner had made a big impression on the defensive staff when he ran the scout team offense while redshirting in 2012.
“He never lost his cool,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “When you’re the scout team quarterback, your first year, you get pushed around a little bit. When you run the huddle, D linemen come in and shove you. I don’t know how many times Mitch would take the ball, put it back in their face and get right after them.”
But in three nonconference games this year, Leidner lacked that same ferocious confidence. He completed only 26 of 54 passes (48.1 percent) with four interceptions and two touchdown passes.
Kill said Claeys told Leidner, “Hey, play like you were on the work team, man. Just relax, go play.”
Helping Leidner’s cause, the Gophers also adjusted their pass-blocking schemes, giving him more time after he was under constant pressure at TCU. And his receivers have done a better job getting open, especially Isaac Fruechte, who had only one catch in nonconference play but has five in the past two weeks.
Fruechte said Leidner “looks a lot more comfortable. His demeanor is so much better than the first few weeks, just kind of relaxed and very comfortable.”
The one hiccup for Leidner in the past two games came when he tried to force a throw to Maxx Williams into double coverage against Northwestern, resulting in a third-quarter interception.
“Three weeks ago, it would have ate him alive,” Kill said. “It didn’t do anything to him. He came back, and threw a [20-yard completion to Fruechte]. I think that was really important.”
Kill was quick to note that the season is only halfway over. Leidner and the whole team have plenty of improvement to make, but having him healthy and confident again is a critical development.