Breaking Down the Buzz: Minnesota

By Tom Fornelli | College Football Writer

Minnesota fans hope Mitch Leidner can improve as a passing threat in 2014
Minnesota fans hope Mitch Leidner can improve as a passing threat in 2014. (USATSI)

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the Eye on College Football examines what current hot topic the fans of one BCS team are obsessing over -- rationally or not. Today's team: the Minnesta Golden Gophers.

What they're talking about is ... improved quarterback play. Normally at this time of the year most football fans are talking about recruiting, but Minnesota is one of the few schools in the Big Ten right now without a commit in the 2015 class. Even so, there doesn't seem to be any gnashing of teeth about it, as most message board posts are confident things will pick up soon enough.

So in the meantime they're talking about one area of last year's team that drastically needs to improve: quarterback play and the passing game in general.

What they're saying is ... they weren't exactly excited by what they saw in the spring game. Minnesota fan site The Daily Gopher wrote about Minnesota's spring game, and the overall tone was not optimistic.

So now it's Moose's job to lose, and while the coaches have been falling all over themselves to gush about Leidner's assertion to a leadership role with the team and the offense, it did not translate into success in the spring game. Leidner was just 7-15 for 74 yards with no TD's and one pick. The INT was a pass where he had sophomore Drew Wolitarksy wide open on a deep post, but the ball was underthrown so badly DB Jalen Myrick had time to recover and pick off the pass. Leidner told FSN's Tyler Mason he wasn't sure what happened on the play but would go back and watch tape. Um, Mitch? You underthrew a wide open receiver.

...

Look, I really, truly hope Leidner is the answer at QB because if they have to turn to a FOURTH freshman QB in as many seasons because of an ineffective starter, it's going to make it almost impossible for this team and program to take another step forward in 2014. Yes, all the other elements look improved, and yes, they managed to win 8 games last year with an anemic passing game, but the chances of doing that again, against a tougher schedule to boot, is somewhere between slim and none.

Message board posters didn't sound much different.

-- "Unfortunately, I don't see the passing game looking much different with ML back there this year. Doesn't mean we can't win 6-7 games, but the upside is severely limited. I wish we knew the full story behind Nelson's departure—-there has to be more to it than what has been told."

--"Mitch has to improve at least a little, and the young WRs should improve more than a little. We had a fair amount of drops last year that should hopefully be less of an issue, and I'm hoping for big strides from Wolitarksy.

"But I think the main hope for offensive improvement is going to be out of the backfield, where we should have more options to attack the edge, and maybe some more short passing and screens to take advantage of our new-found speed out of that backfield.

"Run the ball. Play stout D. Hope the passing game can do just enough to keep defenses honest. That's all I'm looking for this year."

-- "albeit small sample sizes, the two practices and spring game I went to, I saw some improvement from Leidner, but not as much as I would have liked to see from a 3rd yr Soph. I really hope he can get it together and throw the ball like we need him to, because reading that quote he gave to Tyler Mason, that deep pass at the spring game was absolutely awful in which he overthrew Woli. If he didn't know what he did wrong there, we are in big trouble."

What we think is ... Minnesota fans have good reason to be worried. The Gophers pass offense was horrid last season. While its passing efficiency of 121.46 was only low enough to finish No. 88 nationally, it was the overall production from both the quarterbacks and wide receivers that was the true problem. Derrick Engel was the only Gophers wide receiver to catch a touchdown during the regular season, and he didn't catch his first until Minnesota's fifth game of the season.

The entire passing game essentially went through tight end Maxx Williams, and he finished the season with 25 catches for 417 yards. Now, with the style of offense that Minnesota runs, there aren't going to be huge passing numbers. It's just not what the Gophers do. That being said, Minnesota would be better served to be more versatile in the passing game, and definitely by being more efficient.

There's no question that opposing defenses are keying on the run game, be it from a running back or the quarterback, so being more effective through the air when Minnesota does go to the pass would make life a lot easier.

Will they be able to do it? Well, like Minnesota fans, I'm not so sure. Mitch Leidner -- who will likely start this year following the transfer of Philip Nelson to Rutgers -- did throw for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the Texas Bowl, but he only completed 50% of his passes. Ideally Jerry Kill would like to find a new version of Chandler Harnish. While at Northern Illinois in 2010, Harnish rushed for 836 yards and seven touchdowns, but he also threw for 2,530 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 65% of his passes.

That's the kind of balanced play the Gophers will need from their quarterback if they hope to contend for a Big Ten title.

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