College Football: Leidner embraces role with Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS — Mitch Leidner thought he was dumping off a routine screen pass to his fullback Friday when Harold Legania leaped up to snatch the ball right out of the air.
Immediately, there was an uproar on the sidelines as Legania was swarmed by his defensive teammates.
It was the first big play of University of Minnesota’s fall camp, which opened Friday at Gibson Nagurski Football Complex.
“Obviously, a screen play without pads is a little bit difficult,” Leidner said with a smile. “But we’re just going to keep moving forward from that.”
Leidner’s reaction was also the first sign that he isn’t the same quarterback from a year ago.
Last season, the redshirt sophomore would’ve pounded his helmet in disgust, probably been overly critical of himself.
After all, Leidner then was trying to impress coaches. He wanted to show them he should play over returning starter Philip Nelson.
But now this is his team, whether it takes him one practice, two practices or half of camp to get into rhythm.
The Gophers know Leidner needs time to develop as a passer. That will come with more reps this season, which he’ll get plenty of since he’s not splitting time on the first-team offense with Nelson, who transferred.
“It feels good,” Leidner said Friday. “Guys look up to me, and it feels a lot different from last year that’s for sure. I got a little bit of breathing room.”
It’s one thing to take over as the starter because there’s nobody experienced enough to compete with. Backups Conor Rhoda and Chris Streveler are redshirt freshmen.
But the Lakeville native really embraced his role, especially after Gophers coach Jerry Kill told the entire team shortly after last year’s bowl game loss to Syracuse that there was a new leader.
“Right when we found out Phil transferred, coach said that ‘Hey, Mitch is our leader now,’ ” sophomore tight end Maxx Williams said Friday. “From that day on, everyone has turned to Mitch. And Mitch has really stepped up and been like ‘You know what guys? We have a chance to be great. This is what we’ve got to do to get there. Let’s get to work.’ Right since that day, where Mitch got named our true quarterback and leader, he’s been just building on it, and everybody has just been thriving on what he brings every day.”
Leidner used captain’s practices to not only take command of the offense but also set higher goals for what the unit would accomplish over the summer.
Gophers offensive graduate assistant Ryan Maiuri and Leidner put together an offseason plan that was more extensive than what the quarterbacks were responsible for last year, which includes installing a two-minute offense before fall camp.
“I hate to say it, but Philip and I didn’t sit down with guys in the summer like I did this year,” Leidner said.
Leidner was the only sophomore representing his team earlier in the week at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago.
But he didn’t walk around wide-eyed. He didn’t appear overwhelmed with being thrust into the spotlight despite being primarily a backup last season.
It helped to get advice from former University of Minnesota quarterbacks such as Rickey Foggie and Adam Weber, who both had to lead their team as sophomores.
“I feel like I fit in with all the rest of the guys here,” Leidner said in Chicago. “But the thing I think that’s different from my situation vs. Adam Weber’s situation is the guys (Kill) recruits and brings into this program. He up to this point has disciplined them, so I know what he’s looking for. … Outside of football, I don’t have to worry about babysitting all these guys all the time.”
Weber had the school’s all-time leading receiver Eric Decker to throw to, though. Leidner loves having a go-to tight end such as Williams, but he’s still slowly building chemistry with sophomores Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, who made a spectacular diving catch Friday.
Mistakes happen like his interception to Legania, but the potential is there for the offense to take a step forward with everyone following Leidner’s lead this year.
“You can’t buy experience, certainly at that position,” Kill said. “You’ve got to learn every day. You’ve got a lot of high goals, but you’ve got to capture the day. I think we captured the day.”
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