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Minnesota Football: Two Gopher Passing Game Issues Not Named Nelson or Leidner

Was Minnesota's quarterback play good this season? No. But there's two issues with the passing game people don't seem to talk much about, and neither of them is named Nelson or Leidner. Or Philip or Mitch.

Bob Levey

Happy New Year, everyone! For the Minnesota Gopher football program, the coming of a new year means another year of QB controversy. So we say goodbye to #QBGAZE13 and unveil...



Listen, I don't like having this conversation anymore than you do. If it seems like we've had perpetual QB controversies at Minnesota it's because we have, from Weber vs MarQueis (insert comment from GN about how this never should have been a controversy!), MarQueis vs Shortell, and now Nelson vs Leidner, aka Mankato Jesus vs Moose.

The result of #QBGAZE14 won't likely be known until August or September of 2014. Or, God forbid, October...or November get the idea. The QB play this season for Minnesota was neither consistent, nor good, and if we're being honest, it was downright terrible. It seems some of you want to put all the blame on the quarterbacks, but I see two other factors that need to be addressed that are at least partly responsible for the struggles of our young quarterbacks.

We'll get to the two factors, but I by no means want to gloss over how bad the quarterbacks were this year. How bad? Look at the 2013 stats for the B1G schools, scroll down to "Passing Offense" and there you will find the Gophers. Last in just about everything and anything that matters when it comes to the concept of moving the football through the air in a forward motion. And it's not like the B1G is the Pac 12 or Big 12, as the Big Ten still doesn't throw the football particularly well as a conference.

If you watched the Gophers a lot or a little this season (save the Nebraska and Indiana games) these numbers do not surprise you. This is one situation where what you saw and what the numbers say sync pretty well, and, with the exception of the wins over Nebraska and IU, they didn't throw it well whether it was Nelson or Leidner behind center.

However, Nelson's performance during the school's first four game B1G winning streak in over 40 years cannot be ignored, as he looked like an actual, real, legit B1G QB. In four consecutive wins vs Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State Nelson completed 46 of 73 passes (63%) for 748 yards (only 187 per game, but still), 0 picks and 10 total TD's (7 throwing). Those aren't All-American numbers- or probably not even all-conference numbers- by any means, but I would still consider that quality QB play, especially at Minnesota. Had he put up numbers consistent to those all season we not only obviously wouldn't have a QB controversy, but I think everybody would be VERY excited about Nelson's present and future with the team.

The problem, of course, is that outside of those four solid games was a lot of stink (the kids today would probably say "stank" but whatever). Nelson did run the football better this season than last, but his passing numbers were barely an improvement over 2012 when he started the final seven games of the season as a true freshman. His two biggest stinkbombs came in two pretty spots in the loss to Iowa and the bowl game you just witnessed. Not good times. Bad times, actually.

He needs to be more accurate, and as someone who has no basis to give an educated opinion on quarterback play but will now give an uneducated one, from my vantage point of either section 214 or my couch, in the games he stunk he lacked confidence. Confidence in both where he was going with the football and in its delivery. He was especially awful in both respects in the Iowa and Syracuse losses. I don't know how much of that is in Nelson's head, how much of it is coaching, or what else is involved, but it needs to improve for 2014.

Leidner had a very strange season indeed, as a kid who came in as a pocket passer with questionable running ability morphed into the team's second best running back (no, really) with questionable throwing ability. How does that make any sense again? Exactly, it doesn't. Moose actually had a better completion percentage than Nelson at 55%, but he also attempted 108 fewer passes. Yes, he definitely played lass than Nelson (PN#9 started 10 of the 12 games he played in while Moose started only three of 10), but Philip also generally had more pass plays called for him than Mitch. Which in and of itself is strange considering that the only two occassions when Leidner attempted more than 20 passes (Michigan and Syracuse) also happened to be his two best passing games (count the Western Illinois game if you want, but I am not).

To me, Leidner wasn't much more accurate than Nelson, but he at least appeared more confident more often, especially running the ball. He had his share of ugly throws for certain, but got in a nice groove in the fourth quarter in the bowl game and was a dropped hail mary away from pulling out the victory. Again, it's just my opinion, but based on his size and running ability he's the more intriguing option of the two, but it should and will be an open competition this spring and into the summer (and, if we're being honest, probably the fall) to see who gets the job.

What's interesting to me is that for some of you, when asked whether the winner of #QBGAZE14 should be Nelson or Leidner, the answer is NEITHER. Wait, what? Really? We're ready to throw a true sophomore and redshirt freshman out the door? AT MINNE-F***ING-SOTA?!?!? I've spent the previous how many paragraphs saying how bad the QB play was this season. Neither was good, I get that, but it's not like they're both a junior or senior. No matter what was happening around them, I'd have a tough time saying we're done with them and neither can be a good starting QB at Minnesota, especially with the aforementioned four game stretch we saw from Nelson, or the bowl game we just witnessed form Leidner. There's work to be done, sure, but I don't see this being a lost cause for either guy.

Yet for me, it's even more than that, and it's what makes those of you who have the opinion that neither guy is the answer all the more baffling. While I don't believe what we've seen from Nelson and Leidner are enough to write off a freshman and sophomore, I'd at least understand their it a little more if they were surrounded by even one All-Conference receiver or, hell, I'll even take a couple of "proven commodities". Or if the offensive coordinator orchestrating all of this had an extensive track record of success at the BCS level. But neither of those things are true. Not even close. How can you put the blame for the offense's problems at the feet of the QB, and not look at the two other glaring issues with the passing game?

The offensive line and running game in general get a pass from me. The line was better this year, and for next season they lose only one player from not just the two deep, but the THREE deep! There's an incredible amount of depth, experience and talent on the line, and it showed a lot this season. And obviously the running game led by David Cobb was the best since the Mason Era, as Cobb was the first Gopher since 2006 to crack 1000 yards, and he blew by that despite only starting the final six games of the season. The top three running backs on the roster return next season, and we're also adding redshirt frosh Berkley Edwards and Washburn recruit Jeff Jones. The running game looks as good as it has since the glory days of the Mason Era.

The Gophers had two legit B1G-caliber receivers on the roster this year in senior wideout Derek Engel and redshirt frosh Maxx Williams. And we're not even talking all-conference level, just two guys who might get playing time on just about any B1G team. Williams looked great in his first season as a starter, and could be the best pass-catching TE the Gophers have had in a long, long time. He's got an All-B1G future ahead of him before his time is up in Maroon and Gold, and should be a fixture in the passing game for the next few years. Yet as good as he was this year, he was still just a redshirt frosh, disappearing at times, and despite some good games like the bowl game vs Syracuse or the win over IU, he finished the season with only 25 catches for 517 yards and five scores. Those numbers are very pedestrian compared to the rest of the B1G, though they were good enough to lead the Gophers.

Engel was solid this season, and his fourth and long TD grab vs Nebraska is one of my favorite football plays I've ever seen in person. Actually, it might be my very favorite. They don't knock off the Huskers without that catch, and they sure as heck don't beat IU the next week without his 97 yards and two scores. But Engel's ideal role was likely as a second or third receiver, which his numbers certainly reflect (25/401/5) and while he had some big games, he never cracked 100 yards in a game, only bested 50 yards three times, and caught more than three passes in a game just twice. And yet, when his season ended due to a knee injury after the Penn State game, so too did Minnesota's success in the passing game, because they had no other experienced, talented receivers after him.

Minnesota's receiving corps has seen attrition at an alarming rate the past few seasons, but especially since the end of last year. Junior Devin Crawford-Tufts quit the team to focus on track, and while he never did, and may never have, lived up to his potential, he still would have had every opportunity to start and make an impact this season. Andre McDonald was an uber talented recruit who walked in as a freshman last year with B1G-caliber size as well as some ability, yet for various reasons he was just never able to put it together. He left school last spring to get things in order but no sooner did he come back for fall camp that more off-field issues arose, and he was off the team before their first game. Like DCT, McDonald was far more potential than production, but he was a big, talented receiver, something the Gophers are sorely lacking.

With those two gone, none of the other experienced receivers stepped up to help Engel and the QB's. Junior Isaac Fruechte showed flashes last season, but in 2013 despite appearing in every game, including six starts, he still managed just 13 catches for 154 yards and no TD's. Redshirt frosh Jamel Harbison was supposedly the team's best receiver coming out of camp last summer before hurting his knee, yet appeared in just nine games this year and didn't catch a single pass. Soph KJ Maye had another strong camp yet completely disappeared once the season began, grabbing just 7 passes for 70 yards.

That left two true freshman receivers in Drew Wolitarksy and Donovahn Jones, both of whom were playing pretty well- and pretty often- by the end of the season. Wolitarsky as the possession receiver and Jones as the big-play threat had some moments this seasons and both look to have bright futures, yet they're both far from finished products. Which is to be expected for a couple of true freshman being thrown into playing time.

With Engel out- and again, he was solid but far from a star- Minnesota's three best receivers were a redshirt freshman and two true freshmen. I would love to see evidence of a successful B1G passing attack when the three best players were freshmen. Go ahead and look, I'll wait...waiting...waiting...exactly. No matter how much potential these three have, it's an impossible task to ask a freshman and sophomore QB to take major strides in the passing game when their only viable options are freshmen. Did Nelson and Leidner miss some throws? Absolutely, they missed some wide open guys. Yet how many other incompletions were there this season that weren't the QB's fault, where a more experienced receiver makes an adjustment or runs a better route or does all the little things a veteran learns in his career to get open for his QB? If this team had an Eric Decker, or Dajon McKnight, or even an AJ Barker to go along with Engel, I could understand people wanting to put all the blame on the quarterbacks. But this receiving group is woefully short on both talent and experience right now, and it would take a very good, experienced QB to do much with it.

Which brings us to the coaching, and specifically Offensive Coordinator Matt Limegrover. How much of the issues with the passing game are on the coach? How much of the lack of confidence in both QB's to throw the ball is because of the coaching? What about the total lack of confidence in even CALLING A FREAKING PASS PLAY earlier this season?!? I know we can't quantify confidence, but I think for the off-season we need to ask how much of what's happened here is because of the coaching and play-calling? I'm not in meetings or practices and aren't remotely qualified to speak as a QB expert, but I think these are fair questions to ask about how the QB's and passing game are being handled. Are there things Limegrover is doing now that could be done differently or better to help his young QB's and receivers? He showed this season he can and will learn from his mistakes, as he admitted earlier this season that after the Iowa debacle he realized he needed to do some different things, and we saw the results in his best game at Minnesota in the win over Nebraska. That team marched on the Huskers, dominating them at the line of scrimmage, running the ball whenever and wherever they wanted to, and he did a marvelous job of calling plays to mix in the pass, as well as JD's now famous "shits and motions" to keep Nebraska off-balance all afternoon. He followed that up with his offense's most productive game of his tenure, winning a shootout with IU as the Gophers piled up 573 yards of offense, including almost 250 yards rushing. For the first time as OC, he had a QB throw for over 300 yards as Nelson played his best game at Minnesota.

EVERYTHING clicked in those two games and I stopped worrying about our OC. Then the offense slowed against Penn State, then ground to a halt vs Sconnie and Sparty. I know I chalked it up to playing two great defenses and being without Engel. With a month to prepare for Syracuse, I was expecting great things for the bowl game like he had shown last year in the Texas Bowl when he unveilved the GOLDEN-I. Instead, we got a stinker for most of the first three quarters, and it wasn't until Minnesota HAD to throw that things seemed to finally loosen up a bit. Credit to Syracuse for taking away the jet sweep that had worked so well before, as they always seemed to have defenders on the edges waiting for the would-be ballcarrier. But once Cuse showed they figured that out, it's like there was nothing else in his bag of tricks. No real adjustments other than the same old offense we'd seen that hadn't worked very well before.

In the golden age of offense in college football, when points and yards are piling up like never before, I totally understand that Minnesota has no interest in doing any of that. Kill and Limegrover don't want to run a play every 15 seconds, they don't want to spread the field and throw a ball a ton, and they want to minimize their risks as much as possible. Kill believe in old school football, in field position and controlling the clock with the running game, mixing in the pass to move the ball when needed. Both of this year's Rose Bowl participants at Stanford and Michigan State have shown you can win in today's college football with a stout defense, a good running game, and a more risk averse offense, so what Kill and Limegrover are trying to accomplish is by no means a bad strategy. But as we saw the last three games of this season, the defense has made some strides, the running game just keeps getting better, but the passing game, even if it's never going to be a focal point, is still a long ways away.

I'm as disappointed as any Gopher fan in how Leidner and Nelson performed this season, but I'm nowhere near ready to write them off. I'm hopeful Limegrover can get things figured out in the off-season, and we can see a more effective offensive gameplan in 2014. I'm hoping another off-season of maturation and reps can help Leidner or Nelson develop into a full-time, effective B1G starter. Same goes for Williams, Wolitarsky and Jones, and that some of the older guys like Fruechte or Harbison or somebody else can have a breakout year the way David Cobb broke out in 2013. If just a few of these things can happen the passing game should be much improved. If not, then we can start talking about finding a new quarterback.