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Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner finally pain-free and ready to fulfill potential

Minnesota's offense -- and the Big Ten's chances at ending a 22-year drought of quarterbacks being picked in the first round of the NFL draft -- could rest on the shoulders of Mitch Leidner. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

CHICAGO -- Two decades have passed since a Big Ten quarterback heard his name called in the first round of the NFL draft. As time marches on, that ignominious and inexplicable nugget of truth continues to cast a pall on the position in the league. Meanwhile, the question persists: Who will be the signal-caller to break the streak?

Perhaps, as ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay projected in May, it will be a quarterback who has thrown 28 career touchdowns to 20 interceptions and has yet to complete 60 percent of his passes in a single season. Maybe it will be somehow who is seemingly a long shot, whose accuracy has fluctuated because of injuries and who has yet to perform up to the level he knows he can.

So, could Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner really be the answer to a trivia question that ends a 22-year drought next spring?

"It would definitely be cool," Leidner said Monday at Big Ten media days. "There's a lot of people I feel like who have doubted me along the way. A lot of people even in the state of Minnesota. So to be able to do something like that would be definitely very special."

Not since the expansion-year Carolina Panthers selected Penn State's Kerry Collins fifth overall in 1995 has the Big Ten been able to celebrate a first-round quarterback pick. During that span, 53 other quarterbacks across 12 conferences have been first-round selections, including two from the FCS. Many thought Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Connor Cook or Ohio State's Cardale Jones might end the conference's first-round drought two months ago. None did.

Leidner likely won't register atop the mock draft list among most college football fans because he hasn't proved himself as a bona fide top-level quarterback. Several underclassmen also could play their way up the board. But in recent months, Leidner has become a trendy pick in some NFL draft circles, which attempt to measure unquantifiable traits such as upside and potential. McShay projected the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Leidner as the 25th pick overall to the Dallas Cowboys and compared him to previous late-risers Blake Bortles and Carson Wentz. Meanwhile, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. listed him as the No. 2 senior quarterback entering the 2016 season behind Cal's Davis Webb.

Leidner said it was impossible not to hear from teammates and family members that his name was rocketing up the draft boards of a few analysts. And while he is flattered, he realizes there is much to achieve. Step one is finishing a game pain-free.

"I look at it as I don't think I've even reached near my full potential," Leidner said. "Being injured, having a bad foot the past two seasons, not even playing a healthy season yet. At the same time, I feel like I just flat out haven't played as well as I wanted to. I'm excited for this senior year to put everything together for myself and our teammates and get to a Big Ten championship and let all that other stuff take care of itself."

In 2014, Leidner suffered a broken bone in his left big toe during the third game against TCU. That came one week after he sprained a medial collateral ligament against Middle Tennessee. In 2015, he dislocated a toe against Kent State in the third game and experienced pain the rest of the season. He said he struggled to complete downfield throws on the run during practices, and he was benched in favor of Demry Croft in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern.

Leidner did manage to finish the season completing a career-best 59.5 percent of his passes for 2,701 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He excelled in Minnesota's Quick Lane Bowl victory against Central Michigan -- completing 24 of 30 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown -- and was named the game's MVP. He then underwent surgery on his left foot to repair ligament damage in December and did not participate in 11-on-11 drills during spring practice.

Leidner said a Minnesota Vikings foot surgeon performed the operation and reconnected his ligaments while also shaving down parts of his bone. He is now fully healthy and has been medically cleared for more than a month.

Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said the biggest key for Minnesota's offense, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten in scoring last season, will be to play to Leidner's strengths this season. Minnesota hired Jay Johnson as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach this offseason. He replaced former offensive line coach and coordinator Matt Limegrover, who was not retained and now serves as Penn State's offensive line coach.

"I think with our offensive coordinator, there's no question that (consistency) is going to improve immensely," Leidner said. "Because last year we were changing up game plans every single week, and we were coming in with 100 new plays and guys' heads would be spinning. We wouldn't be able to practice at full speed. It was just tough."

Claeys praised his quarterback's leadership, noting Leidner has taken it upon himself to work with small groups of players this summer to build team chemistry. Leidner is representing the Gophers for the third time in his career at Big Ten media days, while Claeys is here for the first time.

"People recognize him more than they do me," Claeys joked.

If Leidner can play up to his potential, he hopes many more people in football circles will recognize him soon enough.