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Minnesota Football: Can the Gophers Improve in 2014 if the Passing Game Doesn't?

The Gophers have the pieces to take anothe step forward in 2014, but it's not going to happen if the passing game doesn't take a step forward of its own.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This year, for the first time in the Jerry Kill Era at Minnesota, I did not attend the spring game, nor one single "open-to-the-public" practice. Though he didn't state it publicly, I'm sure Coach Kill missed my presence very much, and I just want him to know my absense certainly was not for a lack of want. My lovely wife and I had our first baby very recently, and with my family still in town at the time visiting for a week, had I told my wife the day of the Spring Game "Honey, I'm going to leave you and the baby here with my family while I go watch Gopher football and drink beer with JD Mill for a few hours" it most certainly would have been the last words I would have ever uttered. Whatever means of killing me she would have used, not a jury in the world would have convicted her.

So I did the smart thing and didn't even bring it up, and while I was at first sad to miss the festivities this year, after reading the spring game reviews and watching a bit of it on BTN (which included analysis, wisdom and wizardry from GN's favorite human being on earth, Mr Adam Weber! I have no doubt GN recorded every delightful word Weber spoke into Mp3 form so he can hear Minnesota's greatest QB in the history of the program all-time leading passer any time he wants to), perhaps it was best I didn't go. Though there were seemingly many positive takewaways from Minnesota's 15 practices (which we'll cover next week) including the quasi-scrimmage to cap it off last Saturday, the takeaway from all of it still seems to be the same problem we had when the season ended- the Gophers struggle in the passing game.

Last season we talked about the passing game far more than we would have liked, if only because we were continually trying to find the silver lining in numbers that repeatedly screamed that Minnesota simply had one of the worst passing offenses in the nation. This off-season we hoped a spring of sophomore Mitch Leidner being "The Man" along with continued improvement and maturation from a very young receiving corps would lead to a marked improvment of Minnesota throwing the football. Hell, I was just hoping to see signs of ANY improvement by the end of spring ball.

But by all accounts that hasn't happened. Yet. Are we doomed for another year of passing failure, or can Leidner and Co make some strides in 2014? Don't they HAVE to be better considering just about everybody is back from last season AND they're adding some talented recruits to the fold as well?

You would think so, and I certainly hope so, but while the running game, offensive line, and overall play and production of the defense and special teams has improved in three years under Kill, a successful passing game remains the one thing that still eludes them. And it remains the one major area that worries me about the team being better in 2014.

In Kill's three seasons at The U four different QB's have started at least once, and none have been even adequate throwing the football for an entire season. MarQueis Gray was a devastating runner but couldn't stay healthy, Max Shortell showed glimpses of competency but his style didn't fit the offense and saw the writing on the wall with Philip Nelson, who himself didn't like his fit in the offense and saw the potential writing on the wall with Mitch Leidner.

So now it's Moose's job to lose, and while the coaches have been falling all over themselves to gush about Leidner's assertion to a leadership role with the team and the offense, it did not translate into success in the spring game. Leidner was just 7-15 for 74 yards with no TD's and one pick. The INT was a pass where he had sophomore Drew Wolitarksy wide open on a deep post, but the ball was underthrown so badly DB Jalen Myrick had time to recover and pick off the pass. Leidner told FSN's Tyler Mason he wasn't sure what happened on the play but would go back and watch tape. Um, Mitch? You underthrew a wide open receiver.

The other QB's had decent numbers though on far less throws, as Leidner received the bulk of the playing time. Redshirt frosh Chris Streveler was 4-5, Conor Rhoda was only 1-1, and true frosh Dimonic Roden-McKinzy was 4-6 for 46 yards. The coaching staff even went out of their way to praise Roden-McKinzy and how well he's picking up the offense already. Which is great...except when does the revolving door of freshmen QB having to play because the guys in front of them can't stop? Shortell was rushed into service because Q couldn't stay healthy (and as much as I'd rather not admit since I love me some Q, he wasn't throwing the ball real well even when he was healthy), and after some promising games he eventually struggled and was demoted in place of a new freshman, Philip Nelson. In his seven starts to close the 2012 season Nelson had one good game vs Purdue where the Boilers simply refused to adjust to double moves by the Gopher receivers, and Nelson picked them apart all day. In fairness, the scheme that day was also one that played to Nelson's strengths of short drop backs with quick decisions and quick throws. As the season ended and 2013 began the offense went further and further away from quick-read throws to longer, drop-back downfield passes, which didn't do Nelson any favors. As his struggles continued, enter the third freshman in three seasons in Leidner. Like both Nelson and Shortell before him has shown flashses last season, including a decent second half performance in the bowl game to keep Minnesota close (and had a hail mary not gone through our best receiver's hands near the goal line...), yet almost on cue he was unimpressive in the spring game.

Look, I really, truly hope Leidner is the answer at QB because if they have to turn to a FOURTH freshman QB in as many seasons because of an ineffective starter, it's going to make it almost impossible for this team and program to take another step forward in 2014. Yes, all the other elements look improved, and yes, they managed to win 8 games last year with an anemic passing game, but the chances of doing that again, against a tougher schedule to boot, is somewhere between slim and none. Half their wins came against a non-conference slate that was, shall we say, "winnable" (though both SJSU and Vegas went bowling. Of course, I should also point out that when the NCAA just approved a 40th bowl game it's never been easier to go bowling), while the other half came during the school's first four game conference winning streak since 1970 when the passing game was functional and- dare I say it- even good. Of course, the QB at the helm in those four games was Nelson, and he's not here anymore.

I love hearing about Leidner's leadership this winter and spring and I hope it translates into better results, but remember we heard the same stories about MarQueis Gray when the new staff showed up, and unfortunately all the leadership skills in the world didn't turn Q into a better passer. Leidner is a class behind where Q was at that point, and this is going to be his third year in the offense, so let's hope more repetition and more time to gel with his receivers is all he needs. After all, this is still a VERY young group of QB's and receivers, as Wolitarsky and Williams are the two top targers, and like Leidner both are only sophomores. Donovahn Jones getting beat out in spring by senior Isaac Fruechte is not a good sign, as Jones has a world of potential and was the only guy in camp with the ability to get deep on the outside. If the offense is going to continue to focus on longer drops and downfield throws, they need Jones on the field, but first he needs to do it in practice.

Bototm line, it was a disappointing end to spring ball, but I'm not writing off the passing game for 2014- especially because I just renewed my season tickets and I don't want to think about sitting through seven games at TCF Bank watching the passing game struggle yet again. I was there for Nebraska and watched the Indiana game last year, and I want to see more of that. Leidner has potential to be a solid QB in the B1G with his running ability size, and the fact he once could complete passes with regularity in high school. Three big freshmen receivers also arrive on campus in August and while it's scary to think the offense may need to turn to MORE freshman at WR, at least it's more talent and more competition than last year. Who knows, maybe this is the year KJ Maye finally gets on the field and gets the ball thrown his way, or maybe Jones being demoted is because Fruechte is just playing too well (fine, I can dream).

Despite a tougher schedule, the rest of the pieces are there for the Gopher football program to take another big step forward in 2014, but it's not going to happen unless Leidner can help lead the passing game to take a big step forward of its own.