SAN DIEGO – Two years ago, Alex Grinch left his job as the safeties coach at Missouri to coordinate the Washington State defense, trading the South and sundresses for the Pacific Northwest rains and the chance to turn around a unit that sorely needed help forcing turnovers.
And yet, two years later and Grinch is still spending his December putting together a game plan for Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner.
The two last faced off in the 2015 Citrus Bowl, when Leidner was just a sophomore and Grinch’s No. 16 Tigers beat Leidner’s No. 25 Golden Gophers 33-17.
“They’ve adapted a little offensively since that time,” Grinch said. “They’ve put a little more on his plate. They’re running more effectively. His ability to, after they’ve established the run, to throw the ball downfield really makes that offense run.”
In that game, Leidner completed 14 straight passes, a school record, and even caught a 9-yard pass. He finished with 258 yards and a touchdown on 21-of-31 passing.
Grinch sees the same characteristics on tape now that he saw two years ago – namely a big, strong-armed quarterback who can make plays with his feet. In his 3 1/2 years as a starter, Leidner has scored nearly as many touchdowns running the ball (33) as passing it (35).
At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he is a strong presence in the pocket. Last spring those physical attributes led ESPN analyst Todd McShay to project him as a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
“Leidner has ideal size and has shown the ability to make plays with his legs off designed runs and scrambles,” McShay wrote. “He’s a late riser to keep an eye on, similar to Blake Bortles and Carson Wentz.”
Leidner likely won’t be nearly so high on the draft boards of NFL teams after throwing just seven touchdown passes and 7.1 yards per attempt this season, while completing 56.4 percent of his passes, 12 of which were intercepted.
He missed one game with a concussion, but mostly his senior season was just more of what has been an uneven career. He threw just three touchdowns in Big Ten games this year against 11 interceptions, four of which came in the season finale at Wisconsin, a game the Golden Gophers led in the fourth quarter but lost by two touchdowns.
Those interceptions have come at critical times – late in the third quarter and deep in Wisconsin territory when Minnesota had a chance to take a two-score lead against the Badgers, and late in the fourth quarter of an eventual overtime loss at Penn State.
The fifth-year player is an instate kid, playing his high school ball in Lakeville, Minnesota. His younger brother Matt also plays for the Gophers.
He has a fan base of his own within the Minnesota fan base. The Leidner Island Twitter account that organizes tailgates full of people wearing Leidner Island T-shirts has 850 followers.
Part hometown hero, part unfulfilled potential, Leidner is beloved among Minnesota fans for his 14-9 record in game he’s started, his nearly 1,000 career rushing yards and for bringing home the 2015 Quick Lane Bowl MVP trophy.
But his legacy also includes a penchant for turnovers (he has thrown 32 interceptions in his career). His ability to limit them will be paramount in Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl against Grinch, for whom takeaways are the first, second and third defensive priorities.
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