Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner isn’t the next Carson Wentz yet, but if he rocks that consistency, the Gophers could roll
So they both have German surnames. We’ll give you that.
They’re both big, strong, built like tight ends, smart, competitive as hell, and tough as old taffy. And they both played at programs where the fans go gaga for hockey and casseroles.
But before we go overboard on the narrative of Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner as the second coming of Carson Wentz, the former North Dakota State signal-caller taken with the No. 2 overall pick in this past spring’s NFL Draft, let’s just throw out a caveat:
Games With A Completion Rate of 65 Percent Or Better, 2014-‘15
Wentz: 11 (Team went 11-0)
Leidner: 8 (Team went 5-3)
And, what the heck, let’s toss one more:
Games With A Completion Rate of 48 Percent Or Worse, 2014-‘15
Leidner: 9 (Team went 2-7)
See those brakes? Pump ‘em, baby. Pump ‘em hard.
“I think it’s a little much to say, ‘He’s Carson Wentz,’ ” longtime NFL talent evaluator Russ Lande told LandOf10.com. “Carson Wentz is a guy where you put his films on, (and quickly) he jumps out, just because of the velocity and accuracy of this throws. When you watch Leidner, it’s a little bit different.”
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Or undesirable. It’s just … different.
So the second challenge for the Golden Gophers quarterback as preseason camp gets underway Friday is consistency, making those infernal roller-coaster statistical rides a thing of the past.
The first challenge, of course, is health, performing without pain. In his defense, some of the Lakeville, Minn., native’s up-down-up-down days stemmed from comfort, and it’s hard to be cozy — or accurate, for that matter — when you’re planting off a left foot that hurts like sin because of ligament damage in your toes.
Leidner had surgery on the foot right after the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, and when he showed reporters the end result during Big Ten Football Media Days, it resembled a tiny relief map of New Mexico. Coach Tracy Claeys prudently held him out of 11-on-11 drills in the spring.
While the groove is coming back, the discomfort isn’t. Which is the best news of all.
“After what I’ve been able to do this summer, coming off the surgery,” Leidner told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “I feel like I’m twice as good of a player as I was last year.”
The Gophers don’t necessarily need Leidner to be twice as good during his senior campaign so much as they’d really, really, really, really like to minimize — or eliminate outright — the afternoons in which he looks twice as bad.
The connection between Minnesota’s winning percentage and Leidner’s completion percentage is absolutely real (see above), and so is this: When the signal-caller was true on at least 60 percent of this throws, the Gophs were 5-3 last fall. Fewer than 60 percent of the time, they were just 1-4.
“It always comes down to third downs,” Claeys said. “If you look at all the great quarterbacks, they find a way to move the chains. And they don’t turn over the ball. A lot of the times, (on) third down, he was put in … tough situations. They were third-and-longs and he was getting hit quite a bit. But the bottom line is, can he move the chains and get the ball in the end zone? That’s what all quarterbacks are (judged) on.”
It takes a village. On the plus side, everyone seems to be on the same page with new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson, who wants to take advantage of Leidner’s size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and mobility, two traits absolutely – and fairly – comparable to the aforementioned Wentz. On the move, Leidner’s an absolute load, bum toes or not.
“He’s underrated as an athlete,” Lande said, “and moves better than you think for a guy who’s 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 and (230).”
Leidner and Claeys have spoken glowingly of the improvements along the offensive line in recent months. That helps. Especially since he’ll have to find a new go-to target for a second season in a row with the departure of third-down hero and slot man KJ Maye.
“I think when you’re entering (a season) with a senior quarterback as good as he is, you have to play to his strengths,” Claeys noted.
“Coach Johnson would say, ‘Let’s find out what he does really well.’ We don’t need to experiment. If we play to our kids’ strengths, I think we’ve got an opportunity each week to win the ballgame. The No. 1 goal is to find out what he does best to get him ready to lead on game day rather than conduct a lot of experiments.”
For a hoss, Leidner throws a better deep ball than, say, your Tim Tebow/Collin Klein prototype, the sort of king-sized quarterback who effectively doubles as a fullback in short-yardage scenarios. But while the throws leaving Wentz’s release had the apropos touch or zip, depending on the window, Leidner could let go of some real wild cards — a curve here, a knuckler there, two yards too short, five yards too high.
“His release is not driving the ball. Instead, he stops to flick it — he puts a little bit of air (on it),” Lande continued. “Does he have a strong arm? Yes, and he made (that) deep throw against Iowa (last fall). He’s got a big enough arm. I’d like to see him being a little bit more (consistent) with it.
“I think he’s looked at as more of a mid-round type of guy who’s got the size and the arm strength. You want to see every-game consistency. And remember, they do a lot of those rollouts, short passes — those don’t (translate to NFL scouts). So your accuracy on what teams want to see is when he drops back on the 15-yard outs and 18-yard digs. There are times he does (a pause), he takes a beat and the defenses are closing in (during) that short beat. That’s a thing he’s got to improve. And be consistent. Improve that each week and make NFL throws accurately.”
There’s a medium there, somewhere, one that will make scouts happy. If recent performances are any portent, it’ll make Gophers fans even happier.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler