Leidner’s arm needs to be his best weapon
By Marcus R. FullerSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- When Mitch Leidner heard MarQueis Gray was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings, he sent his former Gophers teammate a text message Monday. "I just said, 'Congrats coming back home,' " Leidne...
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - When Mitch Leidner heard MarQueis Gray was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings, he sent his former Gophers teammate a text message Monday.
“I just said, ‘Congrats coming back home,’ ” Leidner, the Gophers’ starting quarterback, said. “He just sent me back, ‘Thanks Bro! And by the way, you should step out of bounds a little more when you’re running. Trust me; it’ll help you out in the long run.’ ”
Gray, an NFL tight end but a quarterback for much of his college career, used his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame to run over defenders but paid the price with several injuries.
Avoiding contact isn’t in Leidner’s DNA, either.
“You can get injured just as bad sliding as you can taking a hit,” he said. “You get your pad level down and take it on like you were taught all the way growing up, you should be fine.”
The 6-4, 237-pound Lakeville product used his legs to shake off the first-game jitters and as an offensive weapon in Thursday’s season opener, with two rushing touchdowns in a 42-20 victory over Eastern Illinois.
The Gophers (1-0), who play Saturday against Middle Tennessee State (1-0) at TCF Bank Stadium, hope Leidner can remain a running threat without putting himself in harm’s way.
With inexperienced quarterbacks behind him on the depth chart, Liedner’s health weighs heavily on the Gophers’ prospects as they try to improve on last season’s eight victories.
“Those extra three or four yards are minuscule in relation to him being out on the field for the next play, series, game,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “We talk to him about that constantly.”
On Thursday night, Leidner fumbled after being sacked for a 3-yard loss in the first quarter. His first rushing play wasn’t until the fourth drive of the game but resulted in a 2-yard touchdown run and 7-0 lead.
Leidner completed only two of his first seven passes, battling some early anxiety opened the game completing just 2 of 7 passes. He had to overcome some anxiety in his first start as the Gophers’ undisputed leader. Running the ball, he said, got him into the flow.
“Coach (Limegrover) has talked to me about getting a run in there early on,” Leidner said. “It really helps me get into the game a little bit more. That’s something me and him have talked about quite a bit.”
Leidner finished 9 for 17 passing for 144 yards and a touchdown but only had seven carries for 15 yards, partly because there are fewer designed running plays for him than last year.
In the four games where Leidner was the primary quarterback in 2013, he averaged 18 carries and 76 rushing yards, which included 24 carries for 151 yards and a school quarterback-record four touchdowns against San Jose State.
Leidner was second on the team last season in rushing attempts (102) and rushing yards (407), and tied running back David Cobb with a team-high seven rushing touchdowns. Those were the best rushing numbers for a U quarterback since Gray set a school record with 966 yards on the ground in 2011.
Limegrover doesn’t want Leidner to ditch what made him successful last year, but the Gophers “aren’t going to have 30 percent of our game plan ‘quarterback run’ anymore,” he said. “We’re getting away from that; we feel like we’ve got not only one running back, but a number of running backs.”
Cobb and redshirt freshman tailback Berkley Edwards combined for 131 of the team’s 182 rushing yards against Eastern Illinois.
The Gophers would like to get more touches for Edwards, who had two rushing touchdowns in his debut, including a 42-yard scoring run.
Junior receiver K.J. Maye, who had an impressive fall camp, didn’t get any touches Thursday, but the game dictated what opportunities were there for him. The same goes for how often Leidner will run the ball moving forward.
“I can’t say it’s going to be seven (carries) every week,” Limegrover said. “Could be four one week, could be 11 another. But we want him upright and being our quarterback. That’s an important factor as we move forward, making sure that we’re not intentionally putting him out there more than we need to.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with the Forum News Service.