Sandell: Gophers' Mitch Leidner gives reason to debate outlook at QB
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Mitch Leidner's breakout performance on Saturday has suddenly injected a heavy surge of intrigue into the Minnesota Gophers' quarterback situation.
Out with a right hamstring strain, Gophers sophomore Philip Nelson, a 10-game starter, watched from the sidelines as Leidner ran his way to a record-setting afternoon in his first collegiate start.
The redshirt freshman cashed in 151 of the Gophers' 353 rushing yards and tied a program record with four touchdowns, captaining Minnesota to a surprising, but nonetheless impressive 43-24 defeat of San Jose State.
All of a sudden, the cliché phrase the media and fans alike tend to gravitate towards has crept into discussions about the Gophers' current outlook under center: "Quarterback controversy."
Nelson, who had started every game for the Gophers since being thrown into the top role at quarterback midseason in 2012, was solid in the first two games -- 221 yards rushing, despite only 245 yards through the air.
His sophomore campaign hit a setback last week when a misstep in the second quarter against Western Illinois resulted in Leidner getting a quick, seemingly temporary promotion.
Despite the fill-in status, Leidner, at least in six quarters of No. 1 quarterback work, has shown he can handle the spotlight that comes with being the team's primary signal caller.
But the question now is should the 4-0 Gophers consider starting Leidner next week in their Big Ten opener against Iowa, even if Nelson is healthy enough to get the nod?
Kill, in the immediate aftermath of his squad's all-around sound victory, was quick to try to stave off any speculation.
"Phillip is our starting quarterback if he is a 100 percent," Kill said. "We're in about as good of a situation as we could be in right now in that position."
Nelson made progress throughout the week in his recovery, but Kill opted to play it safe and keep the sophomore, who he said was at "80 percent," on the sidelines. However, Kill did mention that Nelson was cleared to enter in spots if Leidner needed to come off the field for one or two plays, though Nelson would not have been allowed to run.
If there is even a hint of doubt about Nelson's health status as game day Iowa approaches, the Gophers almost assuredly would stick with Leidner, as they did with running backs David Cobb and Rodrick Williams on Saturday, despite Game 1 starter Donnell Kirkwood finally returning to practice earlier in the week.
But regardless of Kill's initial statement, the idea of staying with Leidner next Saturday, no matter what Nelson's status is, is a conversation that is likely to be had in the week ahead behind the closed doors of the Gophers' football office.
In three years at the helm, Kill's coaching staff has rarely shown any hesitancy from making a major positional move (See: Pulling Nelson's redshirt seven games into the season last year). A mantra of "next man up" is repeated by coaches and players at nearly every opportunity.
So is a game-and-a-half sample size enough to warrant a depth chart switch at this juncture?
Leidner, like Nelson, has a clear ability and inclination to run the football, which has proven to be an integral part of the Gophers offense. Nelson's experience, while not vast, still gives him a slight edge. Neither quarterback has separated himself passing-wise, but Leidner's arm strength and touch on his deep ball arguably ranks ahead of Nelson.
Kill has repeatedly expressed a desire to routinely use a two-quarterback system, but it's still yet to be seen exactly how snaps would be split between the two.
Kill typically makes the comparison to his previous coaching stop at Northern Illinois, where he interspersed a run-prone Jordan Lynch with starter Chandler Harnish in 2010. However, it's not necessarily an easy comparison to make any more.
In that system, Lynch came in only periodically in the latter half of the season, primarily to run the ball. Asked to throw only six times in nine games, Lynch put up 362 yards on 31 carries. Harnish stayed healthy, so Lynch was never needed to fill a starting spot. Leidner already has 15 more carries than Lynch and is now third on the team in rushing yards.
If there was a hint of animosity or heated competition between Nelson and Leidner, one couldn't sense it during the game. Nelson was consistently on the sidelines next to Leidner, talking through the game plan, breaking down coverage and handing out advice when needed.
"I think Philip really helped him," Kill said. "You've got to throw that ego aside and do what's best for your team."
Kill's point could also be directed at the Gophers' long-term quarterback outlook. The coaching staff must decide what's best for the team when it comes how to balance two capable quarterbacks.
In this case, a so-called "quarterback controversy" is a good problem for the Gophers to have.