Last Saturday’s 29-12 win over Western Illinois shows exactly what could go wrong for the Gophers’ read-option offense.
Early in the second quarter, sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson injured his hamstring while on the run.
With Nelson sidelined, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner came into the game and impressed.
“We really didn’t skip a beat [with Leidner],” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “Now you can take some of that pressure off Philip [Nelson], and you can play two kids that can run your offense.”
Still, Leidner’s performance might ramp up the pressure on Nelson. Leidner threw for 105 yards, with only one incompletion on eight attempts.
Leidner’s first pass of the game was a 33-yard play-action completion to redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams.
Nelson has also thrown his fair share of deep balls to Williams this season, but he hasn’t been as efficient as Leidner. Nelson has eclipsed 100 passing yards once this year — against New Mexico State on Sept. 7 — but completed only eight of 15 attempts to get there.
“Those kids know in our player policy manual, if you get injured and somebody replaces you, and they’re playing better than you when you get healthy, then you’ve got to beat them back out,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “As a staff, that’s what we’ve got to decide.”
Nelson’s lack of passing yards contributes to the fact that he runs as much as any quarterback in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Coming into Saturday’s game, he had rushed for 205 yards in just two games – the third-best mark of any Division I quarterback.
Still, while running might be Nelson’s strength, it hurt him Saturday, and Leidner filled the void.
“I think Mitch is a great quarterback, and he was ready to go,” Williams said after the game. “We practice with both [Leidner and Nelson]. ... We were all ready for it.”
Same position, different styles
While Nelson has run his fair share early this season, Leidner might be even more inclined to call his own number in Minnesota’s read-option offense.
Limegrover said the Gophers’ playbook doesn’t have many plays in its offense that are designed quarterback runs — it comes down to the quarterback making the read on the spot.
“Mitch is a big physical kid. He’s probably 230 pounds and is 6-4,” Limegrover said. “He likes the contact. Not that Philip doesn’t ... but he’s even more inclined to call his own number at times. That’s just his nature.”
Running back competition
Running back Donnell Kirkwood hasn’t played since suffering a high-ankle sprain against Nevada-Las Vegas last month. The redshirt junior suited up last Saturday, however, and Limegrover said he will play this Saturday against San Jose State, barring a setback.
Kirkwood’s backups — Rodrick Williams Jr. and David Cobb — have excelled in his absence.
Williams Jr. rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown against New Mexico State. Cobb ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns against Western Illinois.
Kirkwood has been attacking rehab hard to regain his spot.
“Our kids understand the injury policy,” Claeys said. “I think that’s why ... Donnell is working his ass off — because the other two are playing well, and he knows that to get his spot back, he has to perform better than them.”
If Nelson doesn’t do the same, Leidner might leapfrog him as the Gophers’ starter in their two-quarterback system.