Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Quarterbacks typically show improvement in their third season under Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, and Mitch Leidner showed signs of progress in the Gophers’ Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri in January. The junior set career-highs for completions (21), attempts (31) and passing yards (258) in that game, including 14 straight completions.
Leidner has drawn comparisons to Chandler Harnish, who was the quarterback at Northern Illinois at the end of Kill’s tenure there. Harnish improved his numbers from his sophomore to junior seasons, most notably passing yards (1,670 to 2,530), passing touchdowns (11 to 21) and passer rating (137.9 to 157.8).
Leidner was one of just eight players at the FBS level to rush and pass for at least 10 touchdowns in 2014, and he led the FBS in red zone quarterback rating (98.6) as well. He is a capable runner (452 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns last season) like Harnish was (836 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in 2010), but I think the similarities end there and expectations attached to Leidner this year have to be tempered a bit if Harnish is being used as the template.
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Harnish completed just over 64 percent of his passes as a sophomore in 2009, while Leidner completed just 51.5 percent of his passes in his first full season as a starter last year. I would also argue that Northern Illinois had more proven talent around Harnish during his breakout 2010 campaign, even considering the level of competition in the MAC that surely elevated his production.
The Gophers’ notable losses of running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams has diluted Leidner’s supporting cast. Minnesota does have some intriguing young skill position talent, but how Leidner will perform with a bigger burden on him this year is an open question.
Harnish built on his 2010 season with even better production in 2011, as he had over 4,500 yards of total offense (including a bowl game) and was a semifinalist for the Walter Camp Award as a senior. It’s definitely a reach to expect Leidner to take a big step forward this year, and then become a finalist for a national award in 2016.
In order to emerge like Harnish did during his junior season, Leidner needs to take the improved accuracy he has shown in practice settings to the game field consistently this year. With what will obviously be tougher competition by comparison, I’m skeptical he can do so.