Mitch Leidner was on Mark Schofield’s QB Watch List this preseason, but was also receiving some first-round hype. The Minnesota senior made his 2016 debut against Oregon State on Thursday night, and while the Golden Gophers pulled out the victory, the results from Leidner were not pretty. Mark broke down the film and has some positive takeaways – and some negatives
Information processing, processing speed, and decision-making are all critical components to playing quarterback. Starting from the moment a quarterback leaves the huddle, they need to process and digest the external stimuli provided by the defense – including any split-second adjustment – react accordingly, and make the correct decision with the football. In Minnesota’s 2016 opener against Oregon State, senior quarterback Mitch Leidner completed 13 of 26 passes for 130 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions, for a QBR of 78.9. But, his thought process and decision-making were impressive on some plays throughout the game.
Other plays, however, were a different story.
First up, we have a 2nd and 10 play near the end of the first quarter, with the Beavers leading 7-0. The Golden Gophers line up with 11 personnel on the field and Leidner under center. They have a single back in the backfield, with a pro alignment to the right and an inverted slot to the left. Oregon State puts their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, showing a single-high safety look before the snap with free safety Brandon Arnold (#3) more than 15 yards deep and right in the middle of the field:
Prior to the play, wide receiver Brian Smith (#26) comes in motion across the formation. Minnesota snaps the ball as Smith is behind Leidner, and he releases to the flat as the Golden Gophers set up a spot concept to the slot side of the formation:
This is the playart with Leidner’s progression reads. We lack a copy of Minnesota’s playbook, but almost every team has the quarterback read the flat first, then check the snag route, before finally moving on to the corner route.
The defense rotates in response to the motion, with cornerback Treston Decoud (#14) dropping to play a free safety role, while Arnold crashes down to pick up Smith. The Beavers run Cover 1 in the secondary:
Leidner carries out a run fake to tailback Rodney Smith (#1) heading to the left side. This allows the quarterback to keep his field of vision to the spot concept. As the quarterback carries out the fake, his eyes are trained on Smith, his first read in the progression:
As you can see, the slot cornerback has a jam on Drew Wolitarsky (#82), who is releasing on the corner route. Arnold is in a full sprint down toward the flat, to pick up B. Smith on the outside. Finally, the playside cornerback is deep, and he will need to break on the snag route from Rashad Still (#80).
Carrying out the run fake to the left has a benefit in that it allows Leidner to see the play develop. But the drawback is that as a right-handed thrower, he will need to reset his feet in order to throw. After he passes by Smith, he drives his left foot into the turf and wheels his body to get into throwing position. As he does this, he keeps his eyes trained on the outside:
This affords us with a great view of the route design coming together, and the information available to Leidner during the play. Wolitarsky is releasing vertically on his corner route, but slot CB Dwayne Williams (#4) is in lockstep with him. B. Smith is breaking to the outside on his flat route, however, Arnold is closing down on that route from the safety spot. But focus on the snag route from Still. That is breaking open over the middle, and the cornerback is still behind the play, and in no position to break on that route. Leidner wastes no time in pulling the trigger on the snag route, his second read on the play:
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You can see his helmet and field of vision move right to the snag route, and then the QB fires the ball. Leidner’s throw is slightly high, but Still makes the catch with room to spin forward for a gain of seven, giving the Golden Gophers a very manageable 3rd and 3. This is a very quick decision from the quarterback, and an example of good processing speed at the position. Oregon State rotates their secondary just prior to the snap, necessitating Leidner to read and react to the changes. The Gophers quarterback makes the right decision with the football and does so with impressive quickness, keeping the offense on schedule.
This next play does not jump out as an exciting one from a quarterback, but it serves as another example of quick information processing, as well as making the right decision based on both coverage and game situation. Minnesota faces a 3rd and 8 on the Beavers’ 44-yard line with under a minute remaining in the first half and the game knotted at 14. Using 11 personnel, the Golden Gophers line up with Leidner in the pistol and the offense in a 2X2 formation with a tight slot alignment to each side of the field. Oregon State, given the situation, have their 4-1-6 dime defense in the game and they show Cover 2 Man Under, with the safeties around 10 yards deep and the cornerbacks down near the line of scrimmage in catch man alignment:
The Golden Gophers employ a mirrored passing concept, setting up a Flat-7 combination to each side of the field, while the defense stays in Cover 2 Man Under:
The QB will read this exactly like the smash concept. Against zone he will read the cornerback and “throw the corner.” If the CB drops deep with the corner route, he’ll throw to the flat. Should the CB squat on the flat route, the QB throws the corner. If the defense runs man, then the QB will pick his “best side,” either by matchup or field position, and look first to the flat, and then to the corner route.
Leidner takes the snap and executes a three-step drop. He will use a “hit-and-throw” technique here, meaning the ball will be coming out right at or shortly after his third step. But as he takes his second step, his mind is made up. This is what he sees:
First let’s look at the corner route. B. Smith releases vertically, but the safety to that side of the field is watching that route come toward him. In addition, the cornerback is ready to stay with that route as well. But Leidner is okay with that. As with the previous play, the defensive backs are not switching responsibilities on these routes that cross. DB Devin Chappell (#9), in the game as the sixth defensive back, started the play across from Nick Hart (#45), the wing tight end. As Hart breaks to the flat, Chappell trails him from the inside. But with the corner route creating traffic, the defender does not have a direct path to his man. Leidner sees this, and that coupled with the safety help over the corner route, meaning the flat is his best option. So just as the QB hits his third step, he pulls the trigger:
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Hart secures the throw and crashes out of bounds with a 6-yard gain. Now, you might think at first glance that this play was a bust, given that the offense did not pick up the first down. But in this situation, the Golden Gophers were in four-down territory. So the gain of six gets them into a very manageable 4th and 2, and it also stops the clock, allowing them to save one of their two remaining timeouts. So not only did Leidner make the right decision based on coverage, he made a smart decision based on the game situation as well.
Minnesota converted the fourth down, and managed to kick a field goal before the half to take a lead to the locker room.
But not every decision from Leidner was the right one. These next two plays left me scratching my head each and every time I rewatched them. The first is a matter of execution. Facing a 3rd and 8 early in the third quarter, the Golden Gophers line up with 11 personnel and Leidner in the shotgun. They have a pro formation to the right and an inverted slot to the left. Oregon State puts their 4-1-6 dime package in the game and they show Cover 6, with a CB in press alignment on the short side of the field:
Minnesota runs the mesh concept:
The standard reads on this design are deep, then to the mesh, then to the flat. Here, the Golden Gophers get a post route on the short side of the field, but Leidner never allows it to develop. He quickly pulls the ball down to the mesh, throwing a two-yard route on 3rd and 8:
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Wolitarsky gets lit up by Chappell, who is sitting in an underneath zone and breaks forward on the throw, arriving at the receiver’s chest just a split second after the football. Now, Leidner has a bit of pressure at his feet, but there was time to pull the trigger on the post route, provided he makes the throw with a bit of anticipation:
The underneath linebacker and Chappell are reading the QB and the mesh crosser respectively. Tyler Johnson (#6) is running the post route and he is breaking open right behind the underneath defenders. Leidner has a window here for a big play if he pulls the trigger. But he throws it to the mesh:
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Again, the post route is his first read on the mesh concept, so Leidner should be looking at this. And as you can see, against Cover 6 the post is breaking open, with the playside safety using outside leverage on the post route, and the backside safety occupied by the mesh. The route is there, Leidner just needs to give it a chance to open up. He doesn’t, and Minnesota has to punt.
This next play is another questionable decision from the quarterback, but from a more conceptual standpoint. On this first quarter play, the Golden Gophers face a 3rd and 8 on their own 32-yard line, and they line up with Leidner in the pistol with dual slot formations. TE Colton Beebe (#44) aligns in the slot to the right. Oregon State’s dime defense lines up for this play, and they show Cover 2 Man Under. The cornerbacks on the outside are in press alignment, as are the slot defenders inside:
The routes are slightly different, with Beebe running a flat route from the slot while B. Smith runs the slant from the outside on the right side. On the left side of the formation, Wolitarsky runs the slant route from the slot, while Still runs a pivot route, angling inside first before stopping and breaking outside.
The Beavers stay in the Cover 2 Man Under scheme:
As you can see from this image, the slant routes might not be the best decision given this coverage. Not only will these receivers be covered in man coverage by the underneath defenders, but the routes take them right into the path of each safety. That is exactly what happens:
Leidner is pulling the trigger here, throwing the slant route to Wolitarsky. The man defender is right on the receiver’s left hip, in good position. If this were the only defender in the vicinity, this might be a good decision. But now look at the safety. He is right on the hashmark, squatting on the slant route in perfect position to break on the receiver. Which is exactly what he does:
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Thankfully for the offense, the throw is high and the safety cannot come down with the interception. But I do wonder about the decision-making on this play. Looking back at the moment of release, you can see that Still was breaking open on the outside on his pivot route. With the safety help over the top, the slant route was a poor choice that required absolute pinpoint precision to be successful. The pivot route to the outside had a much greater chance of success, and was a better option.
Leidner has a long way to go before he begins to justify some of the preseason hype. There are times when he makes smart, quick decisions with the football and you can tell he is quickly working through his progressions to come up with the best option. But there are other times when the decisions seem forced, and were not the best choice in the given situation. He’ll need to really progress in this area, before he can truly be considered one of the top quarterbacks in this class.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.
All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.
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