Tracy Claeys didn’t have a negative thing to say about his starting quarterback. At the Big Ten Media Days on Monday, the defensive coordinator-turned-head coach spoke highly of Mitch Leidner, and how important his return is for Minnesota.
“All he wants is a win for the University of Minnesota,” Claeys said of the senior quarterback on Monday. “We’re truly lucky to have him back for another season.”
Leidner is a 29-game starter for the Gophers; recording 16 wins as the primary signal caller dating back to his freshmen season. After a rocky sophomore season in which he threw fewer passes than any other 12-game starter in the Big Ten, the Lakeville, Minn. native posted a career year as a junior.
He concluded the 2015 season passing for 2,701 yards and 14 TDs while completing 59.5 percent of his passes. All of those numbers were career bests.
The senior added 270 yards and six scores on the ground.
It was a breakthrough year for the 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback. In that sophomore slump, Leidner ranked last in the conference in passes thrown, total yardage and completion rate. His consistency was a major issue in 2014, completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes in six games.
Even through injury, Leidner rebounded nicely last fall and earned some national recognition after a bounce back campaign. He was named to the Maxwell Award watch list for the fall, joining the likes of fellow Big Ten quarterbacks JT Barrett, CJ Beathard and Wes Lunt.
The transition from erratic passer to stable quarterback has caught the attention from many around the conference, but that’s not what had Claeys praising Leidner at media days on Monday.
“The way that kid competed last year, through the injuries he had, it makes it easy for his teammates to go out and follow him,” Claeys said of his quarterback’s leadership ability.
Leidner struggled with foot and shoulder injuries last fall but still started in all 13 games. The Gophers ended the year 6-7, finishing with a win over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl.
In the spring, Leidner was sidelined from practice after foot surgery in December. He’s expected to be at full-strength by Sept. 1 for the season-opener against Oregon State. Still, through the nagging pains and the hardships of mid-season coaching change, Leidner never wavered. Against some of the best competition, he shined the brightest.
He threw for 317 yards and a touchdown in a 29-26 loss against Michigan. Against Ohio State, Leidner completed 27 of 44 passes for 281 yards and 2 TDs in the 28-14 defeat.
The Gophers came up short, but were in those contests thanks to their quarterback. There’s no doubt that his return is why Claeys has so much confidence right now.
During spring practice, Claeys said that this team should win between eight and 10 games this season. He reaffirmed that belief on Monday afternoon.
“We’re going to enter the football season with what I think is our best football team since we’ve been here,” he said. “We have five years invested in the program and the group of kids that we’ve got, like most teams, have had a great summer and competed extremely hard to make themselves better.”
Questions still surface about the senior quarterback and whether he can maintain that same consistency he displayed last season, particularly in a new scheme under new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson.
But Johnson has simplified the playbook, according to Leidner. The senior believes that will be a positive change for the offense this fall.
“I think with our offensive coordinator, there’s no question that [consistency] is going to improve immensely,” Leidner said, via ESPN. “Because last year we were changing up game plans every single week, and we were coming in with 100 new plays and guys’ heads would be spinning. We wouldn’t be able to practice at full speed. It was just tough.”
The basic approach Johnson is instituting is an adjustment that Claeys likes, too. He believes that an offense that caters to his seasoned quarterback will only allow Leidner to excel.
“When you have a returning senior quarterback that’s as good as he is, you have to play to his strengths,” he said. “You don’t need to experiment. You find out what he does well and do that.
Through a complex and fluctuating scheme, Leidner still set the school’s passing yards record for a junior. He currently ranks seventh in career passing yards (5,118), fifth in completion rate (56.4) and eighth in touchdowns (28) in Minnesota’s record books.
Completely healthy and now running a more manageable offense, his play will only improve. With restored mobility, Leidner can revert back to his dual-threat abilities. In addition to his development as a passer, the senior is also a threat to tuck the ball and run. He’s totaled 1,129 yards and scored 23 TDs with his legs in three seasons.
It’s easy to see why Claeys is anticipating big things. In a game that has become so reliant on quarterback play, the Gophers have stability at the position.
More than that, though, Minnesota has a leader under center. That’s a quality the Gophers can’t replace. It’s the trait Claeys says he appreciates most about his quarterback.
“He’s done a lot of things with the kids in smaller groups to get our team close,” Claeys said. “It’s easy to follow a kid like that who every time he steps on the football field gives it his best.”