Minnesota football: Gophers QB Mitch Leidner finally playing healthy
CHICAGO -- Mitch Leidner first tore a ligament in his left foot against Texas Christian. But the Gophers' quarterback didn't do so in the prime-time season-opener at TCF Bank Stadium last season.
He ripped it, and played through it, in 2014.
Then in the first week of the 2015 preseason camp, he tore another ligament. In the third game against Kent State, he said he dislocated his "second toe and tore some ligaments around that one."
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Leidner soldiered on, starting all 13 games. After the 32-23 win over Illinois on Nov. 21, he wore a protective boot and proclaimed there was nothing that would keep him from playing rival Wisconsin on Thanksgiving weekend.
Before the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 28, a magnetic resonance imaging test revealed "nothing left," he said. Leidner stared down questions about him playing and earned MVP honors in the 21-14 win over Central Michigan.
After the game, he quickly had surgery to "reconstruct the whole top of my foot," and then rehabbed during spring practices.
At Big Ten media day Monday, Leidner shared that nagging, step-by-step ordeal and how his foot is finally healthy heading into his senior season.
"He is so even keel about it there is no way you would know he has been hurt for two years," said linebacker Jack Lynn. "It's crazy."
Toughness is near the top of the list of Leidner's attributes to help carry the Gophers to their high expectations this season. Before Leidner revealed details on his medical chart, Gophers coach Tracy Claeys took the podium and repeated to a larger audience what he has said since spring.
"We're going to enter the season with what I think is our best football team since we've been here," Claeys said in his opening remarks Monday.
After a 6-7 season last year, Claeys said Leidner's health will be a key in achieving the goal of a Big Ten title. He knows taking care of Leidner when he runs will be integral, but the leadership is there.
"I'll tell you what, the way that kid competed last year through the injuries he had, I think it makes it easy for his teammates to get out there and follow him," Claeys said.
Social-media savvy is near the bottom of the list of Leidner's attributes. He doesn't mind that he was late to find out that the conference's media picked Minnesota to finish fifth in the West Division last week.
"I actually found out about that (Monday), so I'm a little behind the times," Leidner said. "But talking with just Jack and Damarius (Travis) here, we don't even -- we just kind of laugh it off."
The Gophers were picked to finish third last year and fifth in 2014, the previous years Leidner has led the Gophers. They ended up finishing fifth last year and second to Wisconsin in 2014.
"It was a thing, though, in the past, we would see something like that (being picked fifth) and we would laugh it off and I really don't think -- we didn't know how good we were," Leidner said. "This year, we know how good we are going where we laugh it off and we have this huge chip on our shoulder."
From 2014 to 2015, Leidner's passing yards went from 1,798 to 2,701; his completion percentage increased from 51 to 59; and his touchdowns/interceptions went from 11/8 to 14/11. He was named to the Maxwell Award watch list for best college football player earlier this month. His improvement, along with his size (6 feet 4 and more than 10-inch hands) as well as high character reviews generated NFL draft buzz -- something that took regular channels (not Twitter) to reach him.
"I was working out in the weight room on campus, and I think one of the strength coaches mentioned it to me," Leidner said. "I didn't really think anything of it. Coach Claeys always says you don't win an award for being a preseason whatever. It's all at what happens at the end of the season."
Leidner is preparing to finish this season healthy. He has shed 20 pounds since the December surgery to be exactly 230. After coping with not being able to sprint, he's now going 100 percent and has increased his miles per hour from 18-19 to 20-21.
"We'll see when camp rolls around if someone wants to peel me back a little bit because I get a little carried away sometimes," Leidner said. "But I just feel good. I'm really excited."