MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Philip Nelson’s right hamstring strain forced him out of the game, Minnesota turned to redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner at quarterback.
Leidner started for the Gophers last week, too, rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns and tops the depth chart going into the Big Ten opener Saturday against Iowa. Nelson, the sophomore who took over at midseason last year, has no guarantees of getting the job back.
This the way coach Jerry Kill and his staff have preferred to operate over many years together. The same situation is in effect at running back, where junior Donnell Kirkwood, coming off a 926-yard season, sprained his right ankle in the first game. Junior David Cobb and sophomore Rodrick Williams have taken over and thrived over the last three weeks.
Filling in for Kill after his seizure during the Sept. 14 win over Western Illinois, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys spoke the day after about the requirement for injured players to re-establish themselves as starters.
“Our kids understand the injury policy,” Claeys said then. “I think that’s why Donnell is working his butt off because the other two are playing well, and he knows that to get his spot back he has to perform better than them.”
Claeys added: “Those kids know in our player policy manual that if you get injured and somebody replaces you, and they’re playing better than you when you get healthy, then you got to beat them back out.”
Kill downplayed this philosophy when asked about it at his news conference Tuesday, to the point of contradicting what Claeys said earlier.
“It’s not been a policy. When a kid’s healthy, we’ll put him back in the lineup. If a player’s a great player and another guy comes in and does a nice job with it, not as good as the other player, you play the one who’s coming back off injury,” Kill said. “If you got guys who rise to the occasion, it gives you a little bit different perspective. You know, you put the best players on the field to win. I think it’s pretty simple.”
Kill added: “I think everybody in the country does it. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t. You play the best players.”
Perhaps he was just being a typically coy college football coach. Or maybe he was trying to encourage Kirkwood and Nelson with the prospect of a significant role waiting for them once they’re fully healthy. But regardless of acknowledgment from the coach, the playing-time patterns have been clear in his three years here.
Cobb is ninth in the Big Ten with 332 yards rushing, including five touchdowns and an average of 6.3 yards per carry. He had a career-high 125 yards in the victory Saturday over San Jose State. Williams has 277 yards rushing to go with three touchdowns and a per-attempt average of 6.2 yards. Reducing their workload simply to accommodate Kirkwood once he’s healthy probably wouldn’t be wise, unless the defenses in the conference start to slow them down.
Kill has long stressed the need to have two capable, mobile quarterbacks in his run-oriented system that features a heavy dose of read-option plays. Nelson will certainly play again once he’s ready, and if Leidner struggles in Big Ten play he would likely become the starter again quickly. Given the added exposure running quarterbacks have to injury, they’ll probably both be needed the rest of the way regardless of their actual performance.
Kill said Nelson “seems to be getting along pretty good” this week.
Leidner is, too.
“I really didn’t know what to expect. We were just going to go out there and play hard, and luckily it worked out,” he said of his first career start. “In terms of preparation it’s the same as it’s always been. Just good hard practices and continuing to get better.”
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