Jerry Kill has done a lot in his three seasons at Minnesota taking the mess Tim Brewster left behind at the bottom of the B1G to an eight win season in 2013. As far as player development goes we've seen improvements in just about every area, with one glaring omission: quarterback. He, OC Matt Limegrover and QB coach/Passing Game Coordinator Jim Zebrowski are still looking to develop their first consistent and successful QB, as in the past three years in the B1G Minnesota has ranked 11th (109), 9th (119), and 11th (121.5) in passing efficiency rating. As a group their QB's have yet to complete more than 53% of their passes in a season, and for individual QBs that attempted- not completed but ATTEMPTED- at least 100 passes in a season, Max Shortell is your high water mark for completion percentage at 56%. And he transferred two years ago.
One of the major issues, or perhaps a product of them, is due to both injury and/or production a freshman backup quarterback has started at least two games in each of all three seasons under Kill. Yet instead of leading to earlier on-field development and eventually a more experienced upper classman quarterback, it has instead somehow done the opposite: the first two guys to get starts their freshman year- Shortell in 2011 and Philip Nelson in 2012- both left the program by the end of their sophomore seasons. This season's starting QB Mitch Leidner was the third to pull off that, um, "feat" last season of starting at least two games as a freshman, and returns as a sophomore in 2014 as the undisputed starter with only inexperienced freshmen behind him. So, just like last year.
There's a few reasons to think/hope/pray this year will be different and that Leidner will be different. A big, physical running QB, "Moose" bulled his way to 407 yards on 102 carries, both of which were second on the team, and he tied David Cobb for rushing TD's with seven. His throwing ability left something to be desired, and yet when looking at the stats, his numbers are better than you may think (courtesy of The U's athletics website):
Yes, Leidner had a better completion percentage and efficiency rating than Nelson, though obviously he threw the ball far less in less playing time. Still, that is encouraging for a guy who was already a better runner in this system, and gives hope for the passing game. Nelson certainly had his moments last year, as he was the QB during Minnesota's four game B1G win streak where he played his best football in what would be a brief Gopher career. During that stretch he was 46-73 (63%) for 748 yards (an average of 187 yards per game) with 7 TD passes and ZERO picks.
Had Nelson continued anywhere close to that pace I have little doubt
he would be your 2014 starter he would not have transferred (as commenter GophNYC points out, no matter how well Nelson had played last year he would NOT be Minnesota's starter in 2014- or on the team at all- after his off-season incident in Mankato. Giant oversight on my part) but instead his production fell off a cliff: in the final two games vs the two best defenses Minnesota faced all year in Wisconsin and Michigan State Nelson was a combined 13-41 (31.7%) for a TOTAL of 160 yds with no TD's and two picks. He started the bowl game vs Syracuse completing just two for his first seven passes for just 18 yards and when it looked like a month's worth of practice had fixed none of the team's offensive woes, Nelson was yanked for the last time as he left the team in the offseason.
Which brings us back to Mitch: his best statistical passing games of the season were his first and his last, but especially the last: in relief of Nelson he went 11-22 (not only the most attempts for him in a game all season, but the only time other than vs Michigan where he attempted more than 12 passes in a game) for 205 yards and 2 TD's with no picks and was a dropped hail mary in the end zone away from pulling off the comeback. It's hard to put too much stock in a single performance, especially when it came at the end of the season, but for a guy who threw the ball so little prior to that game to put up those type of numbers is encouraging nonetheless.
For 2014, the training wheels will need to come off. He's not going to start slingin' it 40 times per game, or even 30, but for this offense to be successful Leidner is going to need to do something similar to what Nelson did during the four game B1G win streak last year, which is be efficient and don't turn the ball over. While Nelson's numbers from that four game streak might seem outlandish as a benchmark for Leidner considering how the QBs have done in three years under Kill and Limegrover to date, they're actually not. As a matter of fact, we can point to a sophomore QB coached by Kill and Limegrover who put up very similar numbers to Nelson's over a full season. It just wasn't at Minnesota:
That is from the 2009 season at Northern Illinois where Harnish, just like Leidner this season, was in his sophomore season and second with starting experience in the Kill/Limegrover offense. And like Leidner, he didn't exactly light it up his freshman season in 2008 either:
Harnish definitely threw the ball more than Leidner did in their frosh campaigns, but he certainly wasn't more effective. Harnish was a good runner who developed into a very good and efficient passer in this offense by the time his career was done, and it should give hope that Leidner can do the same. 64% completions for an average of about 170 yards and a 2:1 TD/INT ratio seems like a reasonable barometer for Leidner as a sophomore, and if can hit that, especially with a receiving corps that is still pretty young, it's going to be pretty easy to get excited for his and the Gophers present and future.
Of course, comparing numbers with Harnish raises the one other issue that quarterbacks- whether they're at The U or NIU- seem to have in this offense: staying healthy. Harnish played in just 10 games in both seasons as he missed two others for injuries, much like injuries that have caused missed time for recent Gopher QBs like MarQueis Gray and Nelson and forced the freshman backup QBs to play. For my taste, Limegrover calls far too many #RUTM (Runs Up the Middle for the uninitiated) for his quarterbacks, and while I understand the thinking behind the calls and what he hopes to open up by showing the defense that option, I feel like you're asking for trouble to run your QB into the teeth of a B1G defense again and again.
Sure, Moose is a tank at 6'2 and 240 pounds and plays with that old-school, bring-it-on, tougher-than-nails running style where he'd rather run over a defender for the extra yard than slide, but even he can get hurt too. Q was as big and tough and athletic as they come for a QB who can tuck it and go at 6'4 and at least 250 and oh-by-the-way is now an NFL H-back, but his injuries got so bad they had to move him back to wide receiver by the middle of his senior year just to keep him on the field.
Leidner needs to stay healthy because all of the quarterback options behind him, just like the past three seasons, are freshmen, and none of them yet seem even as far along as Moose was at this time last year. The current #2 is RS frosh Chris Streveler, a three star recruit from Illinois who is a great athlete but is still trying to find his accuracy and timing. Another RS freshman, and a sneaky bet to steal the QB2 spot from Streveler sooner than later, is former CDH star and walk-on Conor Rhoda. At 6'3 he has the size and gained valuable reps as the scout team QB last season when Streveler was hurt, and the coaches continue to rave about his accuracy and poise. The third guy is the least ready but with the most potential in true freshman Dimonick Roden-McKinzey. A two-time all-state QB from the state of Kansas he was rated a three star recruit by Scout, Rivals and ESPN, and shows incredible athletic ability and a good arm.
Ideally, Leidner will take a big step forward with his passing and stay healthy enough to let the young guys develop behind him and not be thrown into the fire. We're 0-2 thus far in sophomore QBs playing the whole season well enough to come back as the starter as a junior, but Leidner is in prime position to put a halt to that unfortunate stat, as well as not allow a freshman QB to start at least two games for the fourth straight year. We know Moose can run, and if he can improve his passing to Chandler Harnish-type levels this season, he and the Gopher offense could be in for a big season, and put all of the passing game struggles and 'Quarterback Roulette' of the past three seasons behind us for good.