Gophers positional preview: Quarterbacks
This is the first in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice. You can find the entire series here.
Today’s position: Quarterbacks
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starter: Mitch Leidner (redshirt sophomore)
Key backups: Chris Streveler (redshirt freshman), Conor Rhoda (redshirt freshman)
The breakdown: One year ago, there was no certainty at the quarterback position for Minnesota. The job was a revolving door between then-sophomore Philip Nelson and Leidner, a redshirt freshman at the time. The Gophers would alternate between the two from week to week — and sometimes from drive to drive within a game — which led to a lack of stability at the most important position.
Following the 2013 season, Nelson announced that he was leaving the program to transfer to Rutgers, news that opened the door for Leidner to take over the reins. (Nelson has since been dismissed from Rutgers following a pending legal case in Mankato, Minn.) With Nelson now gone, there’s no confusion as to whose team this is.
As the backup to Nelson for most of last year, Leidner attempted just 78 passes, converting 43 of them for 619 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. On top of that, the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Leidner showed he can tuck the ball and run. His 407 rushing yards were second-most on the Gophers, trailing only running back David Cobb (1,202 yards). Leidner rushed for seven touchdowns, which tied Cobb for the team lead. It’s expected that Leidner will run a bit less frequently this year than he did as a redshirt freshman, but his legs will continue to be a weapon and an added wrinkle for Minnesota’s offense.
Leidner had all of spring ball to establish himself as the leader of the offense, and his teammates seemed to follow his lead. They raved about his ability to control the huddle, and Leidner and his receivers even put it extra work away from practice in order to get on the same page and establish some chemistry. The Lakeville, Minn., native seemed to have taken a step forward in Minnesota’s bowl game, in which he threw for a season-high 205 yards on 11-of-22 passing, including a pair of touchdowns. The hope now is that Leidner and the offense can continue to build on the way the 2013 campaign ended.
Best position battle: With Leidner firmly atop the depth chart, there should be a good battle for his backup. Including Leidner, Minnesota’s quarterback crop is young. The Gophers don’t have any signal caller older than a redshirt sophomore, and Leidner is the only one of the five quarterbacks on the roster with playing experience at the Division I level.
Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler should see most of the reps as the second-team quarterback. After learning from Nelson and Leidner during his redshirt year in 2013, Streveler — who dealt with a thumb injury last year — was impressive in spring ball as the backup to Leidner. Fellow redshirt freshman Conor Rhoda has drawn compliments from the coaching staff, while true freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy is an intriguing prospect. Though he’s athletic, he may be a bit too raw to challenge for the No. 3 job in fall camp.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State (Braxton Miller), 2. Penn State (Christian Hackenberg), 3. Michigan (Devin Gardner)
Miller has proven that he can beat Big Ten teams with both his arm and his legs. Though he averaged just 174.5 passing yards per game last season, Miller was one of the most efficient passers in the conference. On top of that, he finished ninth in the Big Ten — and first among conference quarterbacks — in rushing yards per game (89). He wound up surpassing 1,000 yards on the ground (1,068) and added 12 rushing touchdowns to cap an impressive season with the Buckeyes. He’ll now be a senior leader of that high-powered Ohio State offense.
As a true freshman last year, Hackenberg took the Big Ten by surprise a bit. He finished third in the conference with 246.2 passing yards per game. Unfortunately for Hackenberg, he’ll be without his top target from 2013 after wide receiver Allen Robinson left Penn State a year early to enter the NFL Draft. Regardless, the sophomore quarterback figures to be one of the Big Ten’s best.
Gardner’s first full season as Michigan’s starter was an eventful one, but he emerged to finish second in the Big Ten in passing average (246.7 ypg). After throwing 10 interceptions in his first six games, Gardner threw just one more in the second half of the season. He loses his go-to receiver after Jeremy Gallon graduated but has other weapons he can throw to in 2014.
Mitch Leidner says: "I feel like I can step into that role much easier now. I don’t have to ever look back now."
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter