MINNEAPOLIS — Mitch Leidner didn’t have much time to prepare for his first extended action as the Gophers’ quarterback. Maybe that was a good thing for the redshirt freshman, who didn’t have much time to think about the situation.
Now, there’s a chance Leidner takes the field Saturday against San Jose State as Minnesota’s starter. It would be the first start of the redshirt freshman’s young career, but the Gophers feel confident if they do have to go that route if sophomore Philip Nelson is still hampered by his hamstring.
“He was prepared for his opportunity, took advantage of his opportunity and played very well,” Kill said of Leidner, who was 7-for-8 for 105 yards. “We’re very pleased with what he did, and (it) allowed Philip, who had a hamstring strain, to heal up properly. Hopefully (Nelson will) be ready by the weekend, but if he’s not we’ll be prepared to play Mitch. We’ll feel good about it because of the preparation he did and he showed it on Saturday.”
Kill said Tuesday that Nelson was about 65-70 percent healthy, and the Gophers have shown that they’ll err on the side of caution with early season injuries. If both Nelson and Leidner are healthy, there’s always the chance that Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover could use both quarterbacks throughout the game.
Kill and his staff have employed that scenario before. While coaching at Northern Illinois in 2010, they used two quarterbacks — Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch — in their offense, although Harnish was the primary passer while Lynch was used almost exclusively in running situations.
Leidner believes a similar offense could work at Minnesota with he and Nelson.
“Both me and Philip are competitors, so I feel like it would work,” Leidner said. “We both want to win football games, and that’s what matters.”
With Nelson dinged up, true freshman Chris Streveler will also get some more snaps in practice. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound quarterback out of Illinois is third on Minnesota’s depth chart, but could move up to No. 2 if Nelson’s hamstring keeps him out of Saturday’s game against San Jose State.
Streveler took part in the Gophers’ spring practice, so he’s had some time to learn the offense.
“I think Streveler will be ready to go if he has to,” Leider said. “He does good things in practice. He’s a physical kid and he works hard. That can definitely win you some games.”
Kill shot down the notion that Minnesota might view Nelson and Leidner as 1A and 1B, rather than a No. 1 and No. 2 quarterback. While the passing game has been slow out of the gates through three games, it’s still Nelson’s job for now.
In the meantime, the Gophers have faith that Leidner can lead the offense if need be.
“I think right now we’ve got to play the healthiest person ready to play. That’s the most important thing that we do,” Kill said. “I’ve said all along through all the questions I’ve had. We’ll need to make sure we stay healthy to be successful.”
Secondary in for a test: The number of times the Gophers referred to David Fales as a first-round pick speaks to how Minnesota regards the San Jose State quarterback — and for good reason.
As a junior last year, Fales was sixth in the nation in total passing yards with 4,193. He also completed an obscene 72.5 percent of his 451 pass attempts, a percentage that was tops among all FBS quarterbacks.
Even though Fales is off to a bit of a slower start to his senior campaign, the Gophers know they’ll have their hands full with Fales and San Jose State’s passing attack on Saturday.
“This could be a first-round quarterback. As a defense, you get really excited about that,” said Minnesota safety Brock Vereen. “This is our first true test. We’re ready for it.”
Fales was held to 216 yards in the Spartans’ loss to Stanford on Sept. 7 and threw for 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns in San Jose State’s opening-week win against Sacramento State. A true pocket passer — he rushed for — 139 yards last year — Fales can be almost surgical with the way he picks apart defenses. His stellar junior year helped the Spartans finish 11-1 in 2012.
Minnesota’s secondary hopes to keep the future NFL draft pick in check when he visits Minneapolis on Saturday.
“The quarterback, you put on two or three reels of film and there’s a reason that he’s going to be a first-round draft pick. He’s got it,” Kill said of Fales. “I think our kids will be excited about the challenge. I think it’s good. We need it right now. I’m anxious to see how the kids respond.”
The Gophers’ defense has allowed 213.7 passing yards per game through the first three weeks, but they have yet to face a quarterback of Fales’ caliber.
“We need to close windows, basically, because whatever you give them he’ll find a way to make it hurt you,” Vereen said. “It’s a huge test. As a defensive back, these are the games that you dream of.”
Penalty-free Gophers: Through the first three games of the 2013 season, Minnesota leads the Big Ten in a rather important category: fewest penalty yards.
The Gophers have been penalized for an average of 17.3 yards per game, which is the best in the Big Ten and third-best in the nation. In all, Minnesota has been whistled for just seven total penalties — half as many as Penn State, which has the second least in the conference.
Minnesota appears to be making progress in Kill’s third year, and the display of discipline on the field is one example of that.
“Through my years, until I got here, my first year at Northern (Illinois), my first couple at Southern (Illinois), we were trying to build a program,” Kill said. “You have a lot of undiscipline, a lot of penalties, a lot of false starts. You just do. As you mature your program into what you’re trying to do with discipline, don’t beat yourself, keep the game close, so to speak. You emphasize that more and more. I think our kids, through a lot of up-downs and reinforcement right off the bat, they’ve learned that silly penalties will get you beat.”