Passing the ball is just not really something Minnesota does.
That’s not necessarily a stated goal or anything. The Gophers just haven’t had much success throwing the football in recent seasons. And that’s been OK thanks to a strong run game. Minnesota has won eight games in back-to-back campaigns.
Improving the passing game is something Jerry Kill & Co. want to be able to do this season. Last season, Minnesota was second to last in the Big Ten in passing offense and had the lowest completion percentage in the conference. So though the desire to get better is certainly there, there seems to be an awful lot of things that need to happen in order for improvement to become a reality.
First off, Mitch Leidner, while he had a solid 2014 season, has yet to prove himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Now, no one’s expecting Leidner to be Connor Cook or Christian Hackenberg or Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett. But Leidner ranked 10th in the conference in passing yardage last season, last among quarterbacks who appeared in every game. He trailed the likes of Trevor Siemian and C.J. Brown, who had mediocre, injury-riddled seasons, and he ranked just barely ahead of Wes Lunt, who played in only eight games.
Most concerning, though, was the fact that Lender ranked 14th out of 14 qualified Big Ten quarterbacks in completion percentage, with a mark of just 51.5 percent.
Leidner has always been adept at both rushing and passing, and the combination of those two aspects of his game make for a rosier picture than what the passing stats alone show. He rushed for 452 yards last season.
But the thing Kill wants to make sure Leidner improves upon the most is the mental aspect of his game.
“Mitch has got to be like this all the time,” Kill said last week during his preseason press conference. “He's such a great competitor, he'll get up here and something goes wrong, he gets so frustrated, can't do that. … He went to (Peyton) Manning’s camp, and that helped him. He was a different kid when he came back from Manning's camp. He was down there with some of the best.”
But if even if Leidner does everything right this season, there’s still plenty more things that need to go right in order for Minnesota’s passing attack to get off the ground.
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Kill harped a lot on pass protection during that press conference, and protecting Leidner from an onslaught of defenders will be just as important if not more important than anything Leidner himself does.
“They've got to be physically strong because we've had trouble in pass protection getting moved back in the quarterback's face,” Kill said. “And when you get back and you get pressure up front in the quarterback's face, there's nobody going to be able to throw the ball. We've given up too much push, OK.”
In addition to better play from the O-line, Kill wants better play from his wide receivers. Tight end Maxx Williams was one of the best players in the country last season, but he’s now a Baltimore Raven and he won’t be able to help Leidner from the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.
Williams caught just about everything thrown his way, and he often did it in spectacular fashion. Will this year’s crop of pass-catchers be able to make similar plays?
“We lose Maxx Williams. You don't replace him by one guy, you replace him with a group of guys. Our receivers have got to be able to go make some plays for the quarterback,” Kill said. “There's nothing perfect. Watching the National Football League, quarterbacks throw into double coverage, guys catch the ball. ‘Boy I'll tell you what, what a great read that was.’ Well, it was a great read because they had a guy that could go up there and get the football. That's why it was a good read. So we need some guys to go get the football.”
So it’s going to be a team effort if the Gophers want their passing game to get any better. Some of it might come naturally, as without running back David Cobb, there might simply be more opportunities to pass. But every player on the offense will be responsible for improving the Minnesota air attack.