MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team’s recruiting class last year consisted of two of the state’s top prep quarterbacks. One saw the field and wound up as the starter for more than half the season. The other took a redshirt year, spending his days as the quarterback on the scout team.
The former, of course, is Philip Nelson, who started seven games for Minnesota in 2012 after MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell went down with injuries. The latter is Mitch Leidner, who enters 2013 as a redshirt freshman. While Nelson appears to once again be the Gophers’ starter — at least this spring — Leidner has seen his repetitions in practice take a big jump from a year ago.
During spring practices, Minnesota has used a rotation of Nelson and Leidner with the team’s top two offenses. The Gophers’ passing attack is now in the hands of a sophomore and a redshirt freshman.
“I’ve noticed both Phil and Mitch, they’ve both become much more mature,” said tight end Drew Goodger. “They’re the leaders of this team now that MarQueis is gone. They’ve been stepping up.”
Nelson was the top high school quarterback in Minnesota when he graduated from Mankato West, but Leidner wasn’t far behind. The Lakeville South alum was ranked as the No. 56 quarterback in the country by Scout.com — only 10 spots lower than Nelson — and was yet another prized recruit in Kill’s 2012 class.
Ideally, Minnesota would have redshirted both Nelson and Leidner to give each young quarterback a year to learn in practice and adjust to the college game. But circumstances dictated that Nelson be thrust into the starting role midway through the season. Leidner was able to preserve his redshirt, however, something he feels will pay dividends during his time at Minnesota.
“It definitely helps. Getting those reps against that first team, I don’t think you can get anything better than that your redshirt freshman year,” Leidner said.
At 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, Leidner is a bigger, more physical quarterback than the 6-foot-2 Nelson. That doesn’t mean he lacks the speed to tuck the ball and run, something that has been a big part of Minnesota’s offense under head coach Jerry Kill. Leidner believes he’s gotten faster from last year after working with Gophers strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein in the offseason.
“Last summer, I was able to cut down some body fat with Coach Klein and put on some muscle,” Leidner said. “I was able to get my speed up throughout the season and this offseason. This winter, I was definitely able to get faster thanks to Coach Klein and the crew there.”
Kill, entering his third season at the helm, has already noticed an extra burst in Leidner’s step this spring.
“His athletic skill set since he’s came here, he’s worked hard in the weight room with Coach Klein,” Kill said. “He can run. He is big and strong. … He’s got a good skill set, good arm. He just needs the repetition.”
Leidner is finally getting those reps as the team’s No. 2 quarterback after spending time last year emulating other teams’ quarterbacks. During his redshirt year, Leidner shared the Gophers’ Work Team Player of the Year honors along with running back Cole Banham.
As tough as it may be for a freshman to practice every day and not see the field all season, Leidner is grateful for what he learned during his redshirt year.
“From scout team, you’re running Nebraska’s offense and all those different offenses with running quarterbacks,” he said. “You learn how to run the ball and set up blocks, read defenders and play, so it’s good.”
This fall, Leidner will be joined in practice by his younger brother, Matt, a 6-foot-2, 280-pound offensive lineman who will walk on with the Gophers this year. As a freshman — especially as a walk-on — there’s no guarantee that Matt Leidner will play in 2013. But he can take notes from his older brother and the work Mitch Leidner put in during his redshirt year.
“He had a couple schools turn away late with other commitments. Luckily Coach Kill had offered him a walk-on,” Leidner said. “He hopped on board right away. He’s a hard worker. It runs in the family.”