Sandell: This time around, there's no question QB job is Leidner's
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MINNEAPOLIS -- For once, there is no debate
Heralding in a newfound sense of stability on offense, Mitch Leidner is without question the Minnesota Gophers' starting quarterback.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill and the rest of his team have given their full support of Leidner as the No. 1 QB. Although a starting spot is never truly guaranteed, Leidner has gone through the offseason and now into fall camp with a level of security his recent predecessors didn't enjoy.
With a coaching staff that typically likes to hold its personnel decisions close to the vest, the Gophers' public anointing of Leidner as "the guy" under center at the start of camp is significant.
In each of the first four years of the Kill era, the status of the Gophers' starting quarterback has been at least partly in question during camp and in-season. This was especially true last season in another rocky year for Minnesota's offense, as it became a juggling act at quarterback between Philip Nelson and Leidner, who ended up starting four games as a redshirt freshman.
Any lingering controversy regarding who should be the starter in 2014 was put to rest in January when Nelson announced he was transferring. Just like that, the foundation for Leidner's ascension to clear-cut leader of the offense was set.
From spring practice onward, Leidner has developed a strikingly confident and vocal presence, more than enough to earn the trust of his offense, especially his offensive line.
"We have a ton of confidence in Mitch," said junior O-lineman Josh Campion, one of four Gophers captains last season. "He's a great man and a great leader. He took charge of captain practices this summer and he took charge of practice in the spring."
Free from trappings of an open battle for the starting job, the Gophers have been able to jump right into preseason practices with the mission to further cultivate their offense around one quarterback.
Stability is what Minnesota's offense needs. While the Gophers defense has made a significant leap from the doldrums of the Big Ten to one of the conference's best last year, the offense has been slow to gain traction on the same upward trajectory.
The Gophers ranked 11th in the Big Ten in total offense a year ago. Despite averaging 195.2 rushing yards per game -- fifth-best in the conference -- Minnesota's passing game was at times cringe-worthy as they managed a total of 1,925 yards, more than 500 fewer yards than the Big Ten's second-worst passing team (Nebraska).
If the Gophers intend to follow through on their aspirations of improving upon their eight-win campaign in 2014, it is critical their offensive production gets kickstarted to a consistent, respectable level. Having a go-to quarterback who can take the point navigating towards that goal is vital.
Leidner has the needed leadership qualities locked down. Since the spring, he has said the right things and shown impressive initiative and accountability. When it comes to his technique and in-game skills as a quarterback, it must be remembered that he's still a work in progress.
"He's going to have his ups and downs," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "The crazy thing is that you hear so much about Mitch you think he's a fifth-year senior. He's just a redshirt sophomore, so everyday he's still learning. Those guys have really taken to him. And because of that, it's helped his ascension even that much more."
Leidner has been solid in the first week of camp, following up a misstep here or there with a pass he may not have completed as a freshman. A well-placed 45-yard throw up the middle to speedy receiver Donovahn Jones, who had just enough separation from his defender to slip away for a would-be touchdown, elicited cheers from the throng of onlookers on the sideline Tuesday. It was the type of play fans are hoping to see much more of.
From his bulked up frame (he's listed at 6-foot-4, 237-pounds) to showing command of the play at the line, Leidner is certainly beginning to look the part. It's clear, however, he still has much to prove and he knows it. Sometimes that can lead to him overdoing it on a play.
"I think sometimes he's still trying too hard," Limegrover said. "One of the tough things is when you get to the point where he's our guy, I think he wants to prove that was the right decision each and every play. What we're trying to convince him is, 'you know what? Throwing it out of bounds once in a while or throwing at someone's feet isn't the worst thing.'"
The development of Leidner is ongoing, and a measured amount of patience should be used as the process continues on into the season. Gophers fans can be forgiven if they are somewhat cautious to fully embrace Leidner as the answer at quarterback, especially after Nelson faltered and eventually flamed out in his sophomore season. But if the Gophers truly have found the right guy, it could have a major impact on the Minnesota's longterm success.
Based on early observations in camp, one thing is clear: it is critical that Leidner stays healthy throughout the season.
As was the case last year, the Gophers will enter the season without a backup quarterback who has game experience. Chris Streveler and Conor Rhoda, widely regarded as No. 2 and No. 3 on the depth chart, both redshirted in 2014.
One must careful to judge too much off only a few practices, but apart from Leidner, the Gophers' quarterbacks have had plenty of shaky moments so far in camp - misreads and misplaced passes.
The questionable depth at quarterback ups the pressure on Leidner. By fully backing him as their starter at this point, the Gophers are heavily reliant on his progress and perceived potential. That isn't a problem for Leidner. In fact, he embraces the challenging role.
"I feel ready for it," Leidner said. "I'm ready to take this team and just roll with it all the way through camp and into the season."