Mitch Leidner: first-round draft pick.
That might sound ludicrous to some who have watched Leidner serve as an admirable leader but an ineffective quarterback for the Golden Gophers now entering his senior season, never ranking in the minds of fans and observers as one of the better signal-callers in the Big Ten.
But the Leidner hype machine burst onto the scene this offseason, when ESPN’s Todd McShay — on more than one occasion — included the Minnesota quarterback as one of his first-round picks in his admittedly “way too early” 2017 mock draft.
As the Star Tribune relayed to those of us without an ESPN Insider subscription, here was McShay’s evaluation of Leidner:
“Leidner shows some upside as a passer, but I'll be looking to see if he can improve his accuracy (59.5 completion rate and 14/11 TD/INT ratio in 2015). Listed at 6-foot-4 and 237 pounds, Leidner has ideal size and has shown the ability to make plays with his legs off designed runs and scrambles. He's a late riser to keep an eye on, similar to Blake Bortles and Carson Wentz.”
As McShay willingly admits, those numbers aren’t great. Of course, NFL personnel people rarely seemed to be concerned with the outcomes resulting from actual college football games, but that’s another topic.
Leidner has heard about it. And so has his head coach, Tracy Claeys. Unsurprisingly, they don’t seem to care.
“Actually, coach Claeys pulled me into his office and said, ‘Don’t you dare listen to that because if you’re not winning football games for us this season, you just won’t play,’” Leidner said during Big Ten Media Days. “So I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, coach, that’s what I like to hear.’ ... It is what it is. You don’t get an award for it or anything. After the season, when you play well and do big things, that’s when it’s going to be relevant.”
“Believe it or not, I don’t pay too much attention to the NFL,” Claeys said. “I love football, but Sunday is a work day for us. I would just say this: He has those skills, but he’s got to play that well in a game. He knows that. And so if he plays well, which means we play well on offense, Mitch will get rewarded for it when it comes to the NFL. But just like everybody, no later does a championship get over in any sport, a day later somebody’s writing about what’s going to happen next year. Everybody likes to put the cart in front of the horse a little bit. He’s going to have to play well to get those types of recognition.”
Those are some pretty common-sense approaches to that kind of offseason buzz, and the truth is that Leidner hasn’t showed much ability to command a successful offense in his time at Minnesota. Yes, the Gophers won a combined 16 games in his first two seasons as starter (the first of those during which he split time as the starter). But the offensive production hasn’t been anything special. A much-improved 2014 season seemed mostly due to the efforts of running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams. Leidner ranked seventh in the Big Ten in passing yardage last season after ranking 10th in 2014.
Leidner is by no means a bad quarterback or one of the league’s worst. But for him to be saddled with NFL expectations for not doing much to impress so far at the college level doesn’t seem to make much sense. And Leidner knows he hasn’t earned those expectations yet.
“You’ve just got to be consistent on film week in and week out. You can’t have highs and lows, which I think a lot of the games in my career, you have a good game, next week not have a good game.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Leidner isn’t dreaming big. He has sights on a conference championship, another thing that sounds a little farfetched to those who watched the Gophers win just five regular-season games last season. But the confidence is undoubtedly there, practically spilling out of Leidner as he spoke during Big Ten Media Days.
“I think I’m extremely confident, and I have a huge chip on my shoulder being a senior here,” Leidner said. “I want in the worst way to come out of here with a Big Ten championship this season and leave a legacy at Minnesota.”
If the Gophers can turn confidence into real results, then Leidner will have had a big season. And that means more exposure. And that means that NFL Draft buzz might prove a bit more justified.