Two years ago Alex Grinch left his job as the safeties coach at Missouri to coordinate the Washington State defense, with a chance to turn around a unit that sorely needed help in 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 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.”
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In that Citrus Bowl, 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 three and a half years as a starter, Leidner has scored nearly as many touchdowns running the ball (33) as passing it (35).
At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, he is a strong presence in the pocket, and last spring those physical attributes led ESPN analyst Todd McShay to project him as a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
McShay wrote, “Leidner has ideal size and has shown the ability to make plays with his legs off designed runs and scrambles. 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 seven touchdown passes and 7.1 yards per attempt in 2016, 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 more of what has been an uneven career. He threw for 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, late in the fourth quarter of an eventual overtime loss at Penn State.
Leidner, a fifth-year player, went to high school in Lakeville, Minnesota, and his younger brother, Matt, plays for the Gophers.
Part hometown hero, part unfulfilled potential, Mitch Leidner is beloved among Minnesota fans for his 14-9 record in games that he’s started, his nearly 1,000 career rushing yards and for bringing home the 2015 Quick Lane Bowl MVP trophy.
But his legacy 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 and the Cougars, for whom takeaways are the first, second and third defensive priorities.