Preseason predictions for our beloved Golden Gophers have a few common threads - just how good is the secondary, who will replace Maxx Williams and David Cobb, and can Mitch Leidner produce enough offense to give the team a chance to improve. Let's take a closer look at Mitch and whether or not it is reasonable to assume Mitch will improve because of the time that has passed since his last game.
Mitch is entering his third year of play for the Gophers, having played in 22 games the previous two years, starting 16. Mitch's career line is 165 completions in 315 attempts for a completion percentage of 52.4%. Mitch has thrown for 2,417 yards, 7.7 YPA, 14 TDs, and 9 interceptions. In 2014, Mitch's line was 122/237 for a 51.5% completion percentage and 1,798 yards to go along with 7.59 YPA, 11 TDs and 8 interceptions.
Is it reasonable to believe that Mitch Leidner will be a QB who can complete 60% of his passes, throw for enough yards to maintain a balanced offensive attack, and lead this team to another year of improvement on the offensive side of the ball?
It is very reasonable to expect a statistical improvement, but the burden is on Mitch to prove he can be consistent and reliable when his team needs him most. To get to that point, Mitch needs help from his line and his coaching staff.
Let's begin with whether or not an 8-9% jump in passing completion percentage is reasonable to expect from a QB who has plenty of snaps to demonstrate what he is and what he is not. For argument's sake, lets put Mitch at a round number of 250 pass attempts this year, which is just over 20 a game. Mitch would need to go from completing about 130 of those passes to completing 150, or 1.5 more completions per game. That sounds reasonable as long as Mitch doesn't suffer a post-Maxx regression. How many times did Maxx bail out Mitch for a poorly thrown ball? Gopher fans are set to find out in 2015.
Ancillary to this analysis is is the question of how many more passes Mitch would have to throw at his 7.7 YPA rate to reach something like 2,500 yards. That number is right around 325, of which #7 would need to complete 195 of to get to a 60% completion rate. To get to 2,500 yards while staying at 20 pass attempts per game, Mitch would need to experience a jump to 10 YPA. One college player did that in 2015. His name was Marcus Mariota. The highest YPA among QBs who threw fewer than 325 passes in 2014 was 8.6 and belonged to Nick Marshall of Auburn. A more realistic, but still optimistic, expectation for Mitch would be around 7.9 YPA. This would put him in the top 30 QBs in the country with company like Trevone Boykin (but with 200 fewer pass attempts). Following the trends that Mitch has established for himself, 7.9 YPA extrapolates to a per game line like this - 16/26 for 205 yards, around 2 TDs per game and a pick every other game. Season-long that makes for 192/312 for 2,460 yards, 20 TDs and 6 interceptions. While that would be amazing, is that reasonable? You can see that even small jumps in YPA make a huge difference in numbers, which brings me to my final point.
The Minnesota QB situation for the past year and a half can be summarized by one phrase, "Good Mitch v Bad Mitch." Good Mitch produces 55/81, 67.9%, for 716 yards and 8.8 YPA, 6 TDs and 1 pick versus Michigan Northwestern, Iowa, and Missouri. Bad Mitch was 36/93, 38.7%, for 571 yards and 6.1 YPA, 1 TD and 6 picks against TCU, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois. Mid-article quiz: In 2015, against which opponents will we need Good Mitch the most? Gulp.
It truly does not matter what Mitch's final line is or how impressive his per game averages are if he goes full turtle shell in our biggest games. As a coach and fan, I would much rather have a consistent player with 75% of the production of an inconsistent but sometimes great player. I want to know what I am getting so I can count on it in good times and plan around it in bad times.
Gopher faithful spend a lot of time defining "improvement" as a program. In the context of Mitch Leidner, "improvement" equals consistency. Mitch needs to stop forcing throws, hit the easy targets, get rid of the ball on time, and make better decisions under duress. Some of those things may improve his hard stats, but all of them together will allow him to guide this team through difficult games. Now here is the kicker - consistency is not in Mitch's complete control. Mitch needs to know what he can expect from his pass protectors and he needs to be able to ride a groove through consistent involvement in an aerial attack. While Mitch does take bad sacks, his offensive line has not done a good job protecting him on predictable passing downs. Similarly, with Jeff Jones and Berkley Edwards as flex personnel, the play calling should be adjusted to get Mitch some easy throws in order to establish or keep a good rhythm for the U's signal caller.