Spring QB race breakdown: Minnesota

Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Minnesota.

During a practice two years ago, while running the scout team, Mitch Leidner got popped pretty good by massive defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.

As Jerry Kill tells it, Leidner then picked himself off the turf and went right into Hageman's grill.

"I think he gained the respect of his teammates that day," Kill told ESPN.com. "He wasn't going to back down. I think that's kind of why the kids rally around him."

Heading into spring practice this week, Minnesota is rallying around Leidner more than ever. Philip Nelson's offseason transfer to Rutgers left the redshirt sophomore as the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience. Leidner started four games in 2013, but his passing numbers didn't wow anyone.

So he might not necessarily have had a firm grasp on the starting job this year, especially since some talented options such as redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and freshman early enrollee Dimonic Roden-McKinzy are around. But Leidner has used the same mental toughness and leadership qualities he displayed two years ago to his benefit.

After the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, Leidner took charge of the team. He has coordinated voluntary winter workouts and made sure his teammates are going all out in the weight room.

"I wanted to step in anyway and take over," Leidner said. "But now that [Nelson] is gone, I see it as my team."

Kill said Leidner has shown the best leadership from the quarterback position that he's had at Minnesota.

"He's a kid on a mission," Kill said. "He's the No. 1 guy, no question."

The Gophers have gone to back-to-back bowl games and made a steady climb during Kill's first three seasons despite not getting consistent play from their quarterbacks. Only Kansas and Georgia Tech had worse passing offenses than Minnesota among major conference teams last season.

Kill hopes Leidner can begin to change that. He describes the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder as a cross between the two star quarterbacks he helped develop at Northern Illinois, Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. At least from a mental standpoint.

Leidner has watched film of both Harnish and Lynch and spent time talking to each on the phone in January to learn what a Kill-coached quarterback needs to do to succeed.

"I definitely see a lot of similarities between us," he said. "But both those guys put up some really good numbers and won a lot of games. So I can't quite place myself in the same category as those two. But I definitely want to get to their level."

In his debut season, Leidner established himself as a force in the running game. He rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start against San Jose State. He ended up running the ball more times (105) than he threw it (78) in 2013 while completing 55 percent of his passes. Seeing his first extended action in weeks against Syracuse in the bowl game, Leidner threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns but connected on only half of his 22 attempts.

Given his frame, arm strength should never be an issue for Leidner. Accuracy is another story. Kill compares Leidner to former Kansas State star Collin Klein, another big, bruising runner at quarterback "who found a way to throw it and win."

Remember, too, that by the second half of last season, Minnesota's top three receiving threats -- wideouts Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky and tight end Maxx Williams -- were all in their first year of playing. Jones and Wolitarsky were true freshmen who didn't go through spring practice. Leidner believes the passing game will improve now that the group will get an entire offseason to build timing, chemistry and confidence together. Kill had coaches from other programs visit Minneapolis this winter to share tips on the passing game.

"We've proved we can run the ball," Kill said. "Now, we've got to throw it better."

If nothing else, Leidner -- whom some dubbed "the Tundra Tebow" early last season -- can always take off and run. But Kill wants his quarterback to chill on his pile-pushing, bulldozing style and avoid contact so he can stay on the field.

"It's just knowing when to lower your shoulder and being smarter about it," Leidner said. "It's going to take some getting used to, but I know I if I want to play for a long time, it's got to happen."

Streveler, McKinzy and walk-on Conor Rhoda will see a lot of reps this spring, too, and Kill wants to figure out which of those three is the best option behind Leidner. The Gophers have played more than one quarterback in each of the past three seasons and still have very little separation in the classes because two former starting signal-callers -- Nelson and Max Shortell -- have transferred since 2012.

But Kill hopes Leidner is the guy to finally bring some stability and consistency to the most important position on the field.

"He's got all the tools," he said. "Mentally, he's very tough. That's what you need at quarterback."