Leidner's confidence grows after offseason workouts with NFL players

Minnesota Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner became a fixture during offseason workouts held at the Gophers' complex by Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Among the NFL players that Minnesota's Mitch Leidner worked out with in the offseason was New England Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett (right).

Courtesy: Mitch Leidner via Twitter

CHICAGO -- Teammates Mitch Leidner and David Cobb were walking from their hotel rooms Monday morning, when Cobb stopped to remind his quarterback about how far he'd progressed in just two years at the University of Minnesota.

"I said, 'Mitch, Do you remember when you couldn't throw a spiral?'" Cobb joked. "He doesn't like that, but I laugh with him all the time. What he came in at and where he's at now, there's a big difference. He's a different guy."

You will hear all sorts of chatter during the Big Ten's annual football media days about player and team improvement. Much of it comes as hyperbole, meant to boost confidence and instill hope in fan bases looking for something to believe in a month before the regular season begins.

With Leidner, however, you get the sense that talk about his growth -- and the growing hype surrounding his ability -- is entirely warranted. A year ago, Leidner wasn't sure if he'd even play as a redshirt freshman with Phillip Nelson already established in the No. 1 quarterback spot during his sophomore season. But now, Nelson is no longer with the program, and Gophers coach Jerry Kill has had zero qualms sharing that this is Leidner's team.

The area of development that has Kill and Gophers players so enthusiastic about 2014 is Leidner's passing skills. Consider that last season, Leidner ran the ball 102 times in 10 games and passed on only 78 occasions. It is a ratio that will have to change if the Gophers are to find more success this season and improve on their eight-win campaign.

"I'd always been more of a thrower," Leidner said. "The running really turned into me wanting to leave my mark on those games that I would get in last year. It's not like at the end of the game when I was going to get in we were going to throw the ball a ton, so I had to make my mark running the football. That just kind of took off for me."

Leidner, for his part, recognizes that he must be a more willing thrower. And he now possesses the confidence to make those throws thanks to help from an unexpected place this offseason. Leidner, it turns out, became a fixture during offseason workouts held at the Gophers' complex by Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, an eight-time Pro Bowl player, who resides in Minneapolis.

Because Fitzgerald is such a big name in the NFL, he was able to bring several other pro quarterbacks and receivers with him, including two of his Cardinals quarterbacks -- Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley -- along with New England Patriots backup Ryan Mallett and Seattle Seahawks backup Tarvaris Jackson. Carolina Panthers receiver Tiquan Underwood and Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts also attended the sessions.

Leidner, a 6-foot-4, 237-pounder from Lakeville, Minn., said he built his summer class schedule specifically around the workouts so he could attend all of them. He took classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and participated in the pro workouts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And teammates already have taken note of his confidence.

"The biggest thing is you can just tell how he carries himself," said Cobb, one of the Gophers' top returning running backs. "He has fun. It's not any nerves. It's not any panic in him. I'm 100 percent behind him and coach Kill is 100 percent behind him and the whole team is. We know he'll have a good season. He's put in a lot of work in the offseason. We know he'll be all right."

Leidner first worked out with Gophers teammates at 6 a.m. during the offseason and would typically wait around the training complex until after the pros finished their respective sessions. He would then join in with the other quarterbacks and throw to the receivers -- "a big route session," Leidner called it -- progressing through the entire sequence of throws. In the evening, Leidner and Mallett, who has served as Tom Brady's backup the past three seasons, would spend more time together watching film and performing footwork drills.

"You can't be too proud," Kill said. "Just like coaches. Whatever you can do to be better. I think all those situations can do nothing but help. He's had a lot of guidance here in the offseason from working out with (Mallett) and talking to other quarterbacks that we know. I've been in it 31 years, so I've been able to certainly get him in the right positions. And then he's put himself in the right ones when he's had the opportunity. Working with any people that have been associated with Tom Brady is a good thing."

During one Wednesday session, Leidner recalled being the only quarterback that showed up, which gave him an opportunity to throw more than 200 passes to some of the NFL's best receivers.

"They're honestly all great dudes," Leidner said. "Just coming up like, 'Hey, how's it going, man?' It helps that I was throwing really well. They'd give me a shout out on Twitter here and there. It was just fun to be around those guys."

Leidner said he has stayed in touch with Mallett and is still accepting tips on the art of being a quarterback. The experience and knowledge Leidner has gleaned, he said, will make him a more complete player. Last season, he completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 619 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while sharing reps with Nelson.

Kill said making Leidner the starter from the outset of the season should make for a drastic change in the team dynamic.

"When you don't have a pure No. 1 and you don't know that going in -- and he was a redshirt before then -- you really don't know what people can and can't do," Kill said. "I think he understands. He did a great job in the spring. We have to carry it over to the game. But I feel very good about us being better at throwing the ball. A lot of it has to do with the receiving corps."

Minnesota ranked last in the Big Ten in passing offense by nearly 50 yards a year ago, averaging just 148.1 yards per game, and the receivers will need to help Leidner make the gains Kill expects. The Gophers will rely on the improved play of Drew Wolitarsky (15 catches, 259 yards) Donovahn Jones (10 catches, 157 yards) and KJ Maye (seven catches, 70 yards).

If the Gophers can find enough receiving threats, Leidner believes he now has the confidence to make the throws necessary to become a top-caliber Big Ten quarterback.

"It's just a totally different feel after going through all that adversity," Leidner said. "It just makes me that much more comfortable."

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