Notebook: Williams hurdles Missouri defenders, NFL talk

Minnesota Golden Gophers tight end Maxx Williams (right) makes a reception as Missouri Tigers safety Ian Simon defends in the 2015 Citrus Bowl.

Jim Dedmon/Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. — Maxx Williams struggled to hold back the tears.

The emotions weren’t in regards to the question that many Gophers fans were wondering — his NFL future — but Minnesota’s sophomore tight end couldn’t help but get emotional after his team’s 33-17 loss to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl. After helping the program to its second straight eight-win season, the year ended on a sour note.

Once Williams reflected on the game and on the 2014 season, he was finally asked about his future: was this his last game in a Gophers uniform?

"I’m going to sit down and talk to my family tonight and tomorrow and I’ll come up with my decision soon," Williams said.

As a redshirt sophomore, Williams is eligible to leave school early and declare for the NFL Draft. He said before the Citrus Bowl that he did indeed submit his name to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a rather standard procedure for the top underclassmen in college football. With a performance like the one he had Thursday against Missouri, it’s easy to envision Williams playing at the next level.

Williams led the Gophers with 98 yards on seven catches, one of which was a 54-yard touchdown that was perhaps the most impressive in a long list of impressive catches he’s made in his young career. He took a short pass from quarterback Mitch Leidner and sprinted down the left sideline. As Missouri defensive back Aarion Penton made a move to tackle Williams, the Gophers’ big tight end simply hurdled Penton while staying in bounds around the Tigers’ 15-yard line.

But Williams wasn’t done. He beat another Mizzou defender near the goal line and broke through for a touchdown, his eighth of the year. The hurdle was a sign of Williams’ athleticism as he proved once again that he has the talent to play in the NFL.

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"Plays like that today show he’s a first-rounder," said Leidner.

If Williams is indeed done at Minnesota, he leaves after earning numerous individual awards: All-American, Big Ten Tight End of the Year, All-Big Ten. He finished the 2014 season with 36 catches for 569 yards in an offense that relies heavily on the run.

Despite Williams’ non-committal response after the game in regards to his football future, his teammates and head coach had plenty of praise for not only the play he made Thursday but the career he’s had — so far — at Minnesota.

"He’s got a gift, there’s not many people who can catch that football like that," head coach Jerry Kill said. "He’s got great hands, but anything he gets, he deserves. . . . He’s come a long way in a fast time."

For seniors like running back David Cobb, Thursday was the last time they’ll play with Williams at Minnesota. As for the rest of the Gophers, that question may be answered soon.

"Whenever it is that he leaves he’ll make a great decision," Cobb said of Williams. "He’ll go on to the next level and some team will be happy to have him. He can block. He can catch. He’s a mismatch for pretty much anybody who’s guarding him. He’s athletic. I personally can’t wait to watch him myself."

Leidner puts up career numbers in loss: As is typical with the quarterback position, Leidner has drawn criticism from fans over the last two years as the redshirt sophomore has endured his ups and downs. In the Citrus Bowl, though, Leidner had one of his best games — statistically speaking — of his career.

Leidner finished Tuesday’s loss by completing 21 of 31 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown. Both the completions and yardage were career highs. Minnesota didn’t throw downfield a ton, but Leidner was effective with his passes.

Tigers 33, Gophers 17

In fact, he tied a school record for most consecutive completions. His 20-yard pass to KJ Maye was his 14th straight completion, which tied him with former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber.

"I knew we were getting on a little bit of a roll there," Leidner said. "We just kept getting some of those plays called and kept going and kept moving the ball. That was just the biggest thing. As long as we knew we could execute and move the ball and keep getting first downs, we knew we were going to be fine."

Leidner did have two fumbles and lost one, but his struggles in the passing game were minimal against Missouri. He didn’t throw an interception and was able to spread the ball around to eight different receivers.

After the game, Leidner’s teammates stood up for their quarterback, who has received plenty of heat — sometimes unwarranted — this season.

"With Mitch Leidner, I would tell everybody this — and I don’t really care because I’m done — but if any fans or any boosters or anybody ever got mad with that kid, I would like to personally talk to them," said senior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte. "He’s the first one at the complex, he’s the last one to leave. He lifts with offensive and defensive linemen, he’s always watching film, he’s always throwing routes with tight ends and receivers and backs, the kid is exactly what you want in a quarterback. It doesn’t really surprise me that he had that. He’s a great kid, he works hard, he deserves everything he gets and more."

Minnesota contains Mizzou’s Mauk: The Gophers’ defense knew what it was up against in Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk. The sophomore loves to scramble, and uses that ability to extend plays.

While he did that on occasion Thursday against Minnesota, the Gophers felt they did their part in keeping him relatively in check. He was 12-of-19 for just 97 yards and also threw a pair of interceptions, while also running for 38 total yards. One of those rushes was an 18-yard touchdown, and he added a 20-yard scamper. But it wasn’t Mauk who wound up hurting Minnesota.

"He’s a good player. Overall, I think we did a good job on him," Kill said. "There are times when he creased us. But again we really controlled the first half as far as time of possession."

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The 97 passing yards were tied for the second-fewest by Mauk this year. Florida held him to just 20 yards passing back in October, but the Tigers won that game by a 42-13 final. Mauk also threw for 97 yards against Georgia in a 34-0 loss.

Gophers fans show up in droves: Though Minnesota lost the Citrus Bowl, the Gophers fans seemed more prevalent at Thursday’s game. The school sold around 8,000 tickets for the game, which is more than Missouri sold of its allotment.

At the stadium, the Gophers’ seating areas appeared more packed than the Tigers fans. Given that it was only Minnesota’s second bowl game in Florida, the trip to Orlando was welcomed by many Gophers fans who needed a break from the cold weather back home. Kill said at Wednesday’s press conference that he saw Minnesotans swimming in the hotel pool even though it was raining outside.

The support that Minnesota received wasn’t lost on the players, either, some of whom went out of their way to thank the fans.

"It was a great showing for all those people," Leidner said. "All of us on the team really appreciate that."

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