MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner is still working his way back from a concussion, clearing the way for former walk-on Conor Rhoda to start his second straight game when the Golden Gophers host Rutgers on Saturday.
Leidner was listed as out by the team on Tuesday due to a concussion suffered against Iowa on Oct. 8, though that designation is open to re-evaluation later in the week. Coach Tracy Claeys said that Leidner would be able to do some light work in practice this week, but that it would be difficult to get enough work to properly prepare for the game.
“We put a lot more on the quarterback’s plate now than what we have in the past, and you need to practice,” Claeys said. “So I’m not saying that he won’t, but I think it’s extremely difficult for that.”
That opens the door for Rhoda, who was awarded a scholarship in the spring and has played his way up the depth chart. The long climb culminated in his first career start last week at Maryland, and he threw for 82 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in a 31-10 victory that snapped a two-game losing streak to open Big Ten play.
“I felt confident and comfortable going into that one, but now after going through that whole experience and getting a win, just showing our team that I can go out there and do it and we can win a Big Ten road game with me back there, just gives me a ton of confidence,” Rhoda said. “I know it gives the rest of the guys confidence in me, too, so it’s a huge help.”
Making things easier on Rhoda was a strong running game, with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks rushing for 230 yards. It allowed Rhoda to ease into things in his first start, and with the defense dominating the Terrapins offense, Claeys said the Gophers went with a more conservative game plan.
“Conor’s capable of doing a lot more things than that,” Claeys said.
Rhoda was a standout at local football power Cretin-Derham Hall High School and had options once he graduated. But he wanted to play in the Big Ten, even though he was warned by coaches and family that the path from walk-on to starter would be particularly difficult for him.
“I was told by people I consulted with when I was going through that decision my senior year of high school is that it’s one thing to walk on to a big ten program but it’s another thing to do it as a quarterback,” Rhoda said. “Walking on as a quarterback and trying to earn that spot is probably one of the toughest things you can do in college football because they are always going to bring in a quarterback.”
Once he made the decision to stay close to his family and try to make the Gophers, Minnesota coaches told him not to worry about other players who were recruited to come in and play. And even when coach Jerry Kill was forced to retire last season due to medical reasons, Rhoda said he never considered transferring.
“There were maybe a couple of times I think it was I wasn’t necessarily happy with the situation was in,” Rhoda said. “I don’t think I ever really truly thought hard about leaving. I love the university as a whole and my family is so close to here and all my extended family is within a half-hour of the twin cities. It’s really at home for me and it is the place I wanted to be.”
When he took the field last week, Rhoda said he made sure to look around and soak up the moment. And it will only be better in his first home game this week.
“Before the game I kept walking out there and looking at the field and it was an experience that I will never forget,” he said. “Definitely if I get that opportunity to play this week that will be a whole other experience doing it in front of a home crowd and I’m sure a bunch of my family will be able to make it and there will be that much more of an experience to be able to do it at home.”
Coach Tracy Claeys said on his Sunday night show on Facebook Live that Leidner had passed one step of the concussion protocol. It’s not clear how many steps he would need to take this week to be able to play.
Rutgers is 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights lost to Illinois 24-7 last week, and two weeks ago, were demolished by Michigan 78-0.
Claeys said at his weekly media availability Tuesday that Leidner has been cleared for light practice, but it would be difficult to return by Saturday.
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