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Minnesota Football Previews: Are Gopher Quarterbacks an Upgrade or Downgrade

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Minnesota has a similar QB depth chart to last season. Does that automatically mean improvement?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There are several ways one can do positional previews as you near the season.  My favorite way is to take a look at the positional group form 2015, compare it to this year's group and decided if this is an upgrade or a downgrade? Everyone is filled with optimism at this point every year but we have to try (TRY) to be a little objective to see if the optimism is warranted or not.  So let us begin and we will start with the most important position on the field.

Last Year


Starter: Mitch Leidner
Backup: Demry Croft

A year ago the top of the depth chart was a very familiar name as he was the starter in 2014 as well. Leidner was a second year starter, this year unquestioned and clearly the leader on this young offense.  The junior had a rocky start to the 2015 season and the fan base grew rather restless.  Due in part to the entire offense struggling against the weaker opponents on the schedule, but in football those overall struggles often fall on the shoulders of the quarterback.  There is some truth to that a bit of unfairness as well.  These struggles manifested in beating non-Power-5 teams like Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio by 3, 3 and 7 respectively.  That three-game stretch was followed up by a 27-0 beat down at the hands of Northwestern.  At this point Leidner Island was a lonely place, but was argued here that this was the turning point and for the Gopher offense to get going it would take a better ground game.

I believe this plan is going to be great for the quarterback play as well.  I think that the criticism on Leidner is often misguided and unduly harsh.  His overall numbers have improved, he has made some very nice plays, and at best he is the third biggest reason we are struggling offensively.  But there is no doubt - and has never been argued otherwise - that he is limited.  Reducing his throws and running the ball effectively will only open things up for the passing game.  Is Mitch improved and capable of burning defenses off play-action after they are sucked in?  Yes, I believe that to be true, but a ground game has to be established first.

And the next game was Purdue, a ground game was finally established and that's when things started clicking for Leidner and the Gopher offense.  The losses mounted but the quality of opponent was dramatically higher as well.  But the numbers improved throughout the year and the offense became more reliable.  Some of this may be due to the change in offensive philosophy after Tracy Claeys took over after the surprise retirement of Jerry Kill.  But Mitch Leidner's numbers did improve.

CMP

ATT

YDS

CMP%

Pass TD

INT

Rush TD

First 6 Games 99 171 1009 57.9% 6 4 2
Final 7 Games 143 236 1692 60.6% 8 7 4

Overall Leidner did what was expected before the season began.  He improved his completion %, he reduced his interceptions (per attempt) while leading the Gophers through a difficult schedule.  He had very good games against Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa while struggling against Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Behind Mitch was Demry Croft who was a true freshman and was briefly put into Northwestern game when Leidner was at his worst.  Those snaps cost him his redshirt.  He did get some mop-up duty in the Purdue win and had one passing attempt against Ohio State, but that was the extent of his playing time.

Jacques Parra did get a rep or two last year before transferring in the off-season.

This Year

Projected Starter: Mitch Leidner
Backup: Demry Croft
Youth: Seth Green and Mark Williams

Both of the quarterbacks who saw action last year are back and likely in the same situation as they were.  Leidner is your unquestioned starter who is reportedly more healthy this year and primed to have a solid year in his third year as the starter.  Croft has now had a full year to understand what is expected of him and improve upon all the necessary things he has needed to work on.  Connor Rhoda is a capable third string who brings experience and an accurate arm.  Followed by a couple of true freshman who should finally get an opportunity to redshirt and just get better before getting the right to fight for the starting job next year.

Liedner should be exactly what we have seen and expected.  Maybe slightly better in decision making which will hopefully increase completion % a little and decrease turnovers a little more.  Todd McShay "projecting" him as a possible 1st round draft pick is a little ridiculous and people shouldn't raise expectations to anything unreasonable.  Leidner is solid, he is a very good leader, he throws a really nice deep ball and he should be just fine.

Croft, to date, has been a practice warrior who throws an absolutely beautiful football.  Both practices I attended (and much of last year's open practices), Croft looks like a fantastic passer.  His fluid motion, tight spirals and usually good placement is really very pretty.  What is unsure is how does he play at game-speed?  Can he make quick decisions, can he read a defense and can he lead a Big Ten offense?  If Leidner were to miss any time, we will quickly find out how good Croft is.  He is in a good spot to be able to continue to develop and improve but also has at least some experience should he be called upon this season.

Hopefully it doesn't get beyond those two, but if they should both go down to injury I would expect Connor Rhoda to play.

Upgrade or Downgrade?

Considering nothing is lost, I think that this is clearly not a downgrade.  Perhaps it is more neutral but I think another off-season, successful foot surgery for Leidner, more confidence for Croft and a more refined offensive playbook/philosophy all should lead to this being an upgrade, even if only a slight one.

Predictions

My very real prediction that I would actually bet money on is that Leidner will struggle early, even just a little bit.  And he will take significant heat.  I think that the way he ended last season plus the ridiculous McShay draft prediction will embolden some who are already not fans of Leidner to jump on him the second he struggles or throws a bad pick. It is going to happen.  But Leidner will not be benched, he will settle down and be just fine throughout the entire season.  I expect over 60% completion and he leads a Gopher offense that shows a modest gain in points per game to somewhere in the 25-28 ppg range.

Should Croft play, I think we will see reasons to be very excited followed by reasons to realize that he's a freshman and experience matters.