College Football: Priority passing? Not for Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS -- With his team already down 30-0 early in the fourth quarter last Saturday against Texas Christian, Chris Streveler didn't get too excited about getting the Gophers finally getting on the scoreboard on his first career touchdown.
MINNEAPOLIS - With his team already down 30-0 early in the fourth quarter last Saturday against Texas Christian, Chris Streveler didn’t get too excited about getting the Gophers finally getting on the scoreboard on his first career touchdown.
The quarterback Streveler quickly slapped a few hands while jogging over to give tight end Maxx Williams props for hauling in the 12-yard scoring pass on fourth down.
“It’s exciting to get a touchdown, do something good out on the field and help the team,” he said. “But at the same time, I didn’t really want to get too excited because of the scoreboard. I wanted to stay level headed.”
Keeping his cool will definitely be beneficial on Saturday, when the reshirt freshman will likely get his first career start in place of injured sophomore Mitch Leidner when the Gophers (2-1) play host to San Jose State (1-1) at TCF Bank Stadium.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Crystal Lake, Ill., native also will have to show he’s more than just a running threat, something Minnesota quarterbacks have struggled with in fourth-year coach Jerry Kill’s offense.
The Gophers ranked last in the Big Ten in passing last year at 148.1 yards a game, the team’s lowest average since 1988. So far this season, they’ve been even worse, averaging 130.7 yards - last in the conference and 117th among 125 FBS teams.
“I think we’d like to be throwing for 300 yards a game, and it’s not happening right now,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “It was a priority, and it still is a priority, and we’re still working on getting that thing honed down. So there is frustration all the way around.”
Leidner has completed just 48 percent of his passes this year, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. The jury is still out on Streveler because he has twice as many carries (13) as passing attempts (four) in limited action in three games.
But Streveler, who would be the fifth different starting quarterback for the program in the past three seasons - and fourth freshman in four years - doesn’t think limited reps are preventing Gophers quarterbacks from developing as passers.
“We all have our own style of playing quarterback,” he said. “I think we all get into rhythm at a different pace and our own way. I don’t think passing really has anything to do with us getting into rhythm or not; it’s just kind of getting into the flow of the game. You’ll get into rhythm eventually.”
Leidner showed potential as a passer with 205 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Syracuse in last season’s Texas Bowl. He also got going in the second quarter of the season-opening win against Eastern Illinois this year, completing five straight passes - including a 35-yard touchdown strike to Donovahn Jones - after a 2-for-7 start.
But Leidner only completed 5 of 11 passes for 67 yards in a victory against Middle Tennessee State, in some part because the Gophers rushed for a relatively easy 284 yards.
“If you’re passing the ball on average 10-15 times a game, you’re not able to develop like some of the kids who are throwing 30-40-50 times a game,” Fox college football analyst and former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn said. “With more reps, that gives you more opportunity to get better. That plays a part.”
Leidner got his first career start against San Jose State last year, rushing for 151 yards and four touchdowns, a school record for a quarterback. But he completed only 5 of 12 passes for 71 yards.
Limegrover was impressed with the amount of passing work Leidner did in the offseason but said he’s trying too hard to be something he’s not - yet.
“I think he wants to do so well,” Limegrover said. “He wants to make the exact right throw, and yet there is a lot going on around him. We need to do our part to let him figure out what that right throw is. I think that’s when things really fall into rhythm.”
It appears Streveler’s receiving options will be limited on Saturday. Tight end Maxx Williams, the team’s leading receiver, and receiver K.J. Maye (65 yards receiving against TCU) are questionable because of injuries.
Throwing with confidence, as Steveler did on the touchdown pass to Williams last week, will go a long way to opening up the offense - and silencing doubters.
Gophers fans were critical of Leidner’s passing against TCU on social media, but they’ve been down Streveler’s ability to throw since accuracy issues during preseason scrimmages.
“There are always going to be naysayers, no matter who you are,” Streveler said. “I’m not really big into reading into people who say bad things about me. But I know they say it. It motivates me, but I work hard the same every day no matter what.”
The Gophers’ last true passer was Adam Weber, who started every game from 2007 to 2010 and became the school’s career leader in passing yards (10,917) and passing touchdowns (72).
Weber took advantage of a wide-open, spread offense in his first two seasons, in three of his seasons had all-time leading receiver Eric Decker - now a stater for the New York Jets - to throw to.
But he also had three different offensive coordinators, no running game and inconsistent pass protection. Despite this, the Shoreview native managed to shake the tag of “athlete” to become a genuine passing threat.
“It’s similar to, like, golf, in the sense that you have to have a rhythm to your throw,” Weber said. “You hear commentators say all the time that a passer is getting into rhythm, or he’s hot right now. That’s what helps, when you can kind of get some quick throws to set you up for some play-action.
“It helps to have a run game, too, but it’s hard to get into rhythm if you’re not throwing the ball very much.”
Weber finished his career ranked third in Big Ten history with 1,594 passing attempts, nearly 650 more attempts than Bryan Cupito, who ranks second in team history in passes thrown.
The fewest pass attempts Weber had in a season was 368 as a senior in 2010. By comparison, MarQueis Gray had 213 pass attempts in 2011. Philip Nelson led the team with 152 and 186 the past two seasons; that includes a freshman season of only seven games in 2012.
Leidner has thrown just 132 passes in his career, 54 in three games this year. Streveler could set his own career high in one drive Saturday.
But Cupito, the program’s all-time passing leader before Weber, found a way to develop his arm and gain confidence in a run-oriented offense under Glen Mason.
“If they have to pass the ball, it’s not exactly pretty at this point,” Cupito said, “but it’s just going to take time. I’ve been there. It’s not easy when you’re predominantly a running team.”
It’s rare these days that a program doesn’t recruit a quarterback considered a dual-threat. The Gophers are no different, but it can make it hard to find a quarterback who can throw immediately.
“When you’re looking at Minnesota, I don’t know many guys you’re recruiting - that run the football in high school - that are able to come in right away and be prolific in the passing game,” Quinn said. “Especially if they’re running a system similar to Minnesota’s.”
Leidner wasn’t much of a runner in high school, but Nelson, Streveler and true freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy were.
In Kill’s 2015 recruiting class, 6-foot-5, 180-pound quarterback Demy Croft from Boylan High School in Illinois also is considered more of an athlete than quarterback, although he did pass for 418 yards in his season opener.
Streveler says his passing has improved tremendously since his junior year in high school.
“My throwing motion definitely needed a lot of work, (and) reading defenses,” he said. “In every way, my game I feel like has gotten better. I was really raw back then. I’m still kind of an athlete, but I’ve got to keep getting better.”
Quinn says it’s all about putting a young quarterback such as Streveler or Leidner in a position to succeed: He has to have opportunities to throw while not being asked to win the game with his arm.
“If you’re able to plug him in and kind of protect him, give him some easy completions and get him involved in the running game - especially with a guy like Chris Streveler who is so athletic - then you can start to develop a guy,” Quinn said. “You put that money in the bank and you have to be able to cash in later.”