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Mitch Leidner and the challenge of conservative offense

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Minnesota keeps chugging along with Tracy Claeys and Mitch Leidner but what'll it take for Minnesota to break through on offense in 2016?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Connelly's preview of Minnesota's 2016 prospects is up and within that always fantastic read is this phenomenal headline describing some of the media attention around returning starting quarterback Mitch Leidner:

Mcshay gone nuts?

We can use deductive reasoning and examine his own words to arrive at why McShay believes that Mitch Leidner is a top flight NFL prospect that could go in the first round of the draft. He's a big guy with a strong arm who operates in an offense that regularly puts him under center, utilizes him in pro-style play-action concepts, and mixes in some West Coast drop-back passing.

Scouts are always put more at ease when they can watch how well a quarterback handles the fundamentals and techniques they'll be utilizing in the NFL and you can check off some of those boxes with Leidner's film.

Then you go into "Moneyball" mode and question why it matters if he has "a good swing" if he's throwing 11 interceptions to only 14 touchdowns and averaging a mere 6.2 yards per passing attempt.

Both Connelly and McShay are right but Connelly much more so than McShay. Leidner's numbers don't suggest a player who's going to kill it at the NFL level although his execution of what he's asked to do within the Minnesota offense (and potentially an NFL offense) isn't bad and might even be promising.

Before we dive into the Gopher offense and what they'll be looking to do in 2016, I want to note a key similarity in Leidner's 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Year Leading receiver Catches-Yards TDs Yards per target
2014 Maxx Williams 36-569 8 8.9
2015 K.J. Maye 73-773 5

6.2

The few occasions in which Leidner was throwing the ball in 2014 featured NFL target Maxx Williams, who represents the high end of what's possible for a big, possession receiver. The following year Minnesota was understandably unable to just plug in another NFL-ready TE (although Brandon Lingen had a strong year) but they still featured a rather unexplosive passing game. That's due in large part to the fact that Minnesota is pretty conservative on offense in general and aren't pushing the ball downfield much and that leads to other challenges.

The challenge of conservative offense

Bill Connelly's "five factors" make it pretty clear that without explosive plays it's very difficult to score. Programs like the one utilized by Minnesota tend to make explosiveness a later priority for the offense after beefing up the defense, avoiding negative plays or turnovers, and winning the field position battle.

The only problem with this approach is that it's actually fairly difficult to build an offense that's really good at avoiding negative plays or turnovers. These teams face heavy roster turnover every season and are plugging in 20-year old college students, after all.

Moving down the field with steady gains is difficult and mastering a run game system AND a timing-based, West Coast passing system for accomplishing that aim just raises the difficulty level of playing mistake-free football. This is why many schools with less resources have had more success with systems built around the constraint theory of offense where every component of the system directly builds off other parts.

The West Coast passing game and power run game are both designed to do the same thing and neither are specifically designed to punish defenses for scheming to stop the other on a given play. Executing either well enough to stay ahead of the chains, much less regularly generate explosive plays, requires developed skill and cohesion across the offense. So a team that features both is forced to spend a lot of time on each to develop the necessary mastery.

Maintaining an efficiency-based approach in the run game requires either fielding five massive linemen that can cover up opposing defensive linemen and prevent penetration, which requires recruiting big bodies and honing technique over years of development OR putting a major emphasis on double teams to ensure that the offense can clear the first level. Either way, you usually need seasoned veterans to do it well.

The needed execution in the passing game is dependent on receivers and quarterbacks that are in sync, on time, accurate, and have reliable hands. If you have those traits the receivers don't have to be great athletes and the quarterback doesn't have to have a cannon arm, the design of the concepts will do the heavy lifting. If you have those traits and then some speed, then you're cooking with gas.

Minnesota's brand of conservative offense

The Gophers of 2015 were all about a few key run and pass concepts designed to allow them to stay ahead of the chains. Although they had some pretty big linemen, their approach in the run game was built largely on using double-teams to secure the line of scrimmage rather than relying on size and solo techniques.

They ran a lot of power, which is all about clearing out a path with a double team and a pulling guard who's light on his feet:

A key feature to their run game was their H-back/tight end combination of Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak. The former is 6'5", 247 pounds and they would move him around as the H-back so that he could execute lead blocks or kick-outs behind the bigger Wozniak, who at 6'10", 275 was basically a sixth offensive lineman.

Despite the Badgers loaded front on this play, with Wozniak on the field they were able to get a double team and a great angle on the defensive end and create movement for their back to plow ahead for a nice gain running into a wall of bodies.

Their other key play was inside zone, which they executed best with a QB read attached:

You notice here they have three guys blocking one at one point (TCU's stunt caught them off guard a little), but the numbers advantage guarantees a running lane and a gain for the back. On the weakside edge they're using Wozniak off the line this time to pick off the linebacker if the defense attempts to scrape exchange the play to stop the QB run. So the design is such that either the defensive end stays home and the offense gets a numbers advantage to run behind the double team OR the end crashes after the running back and the QB pulls the ball and works around the crack back block on the linebacker:

Gopher ZR

In the passing game the Gophers would rely on short, quick throws like double slants or slant/flat to give Leidner quick reads and throws. They didn't take a ton of deep shots with the play-action game and when they did they had a lousy hit rate.

Mitch Leidner is actually an ideal quarterback for executing all of this because he's accurate on quick passes and both mobile and sturdy in the run game. He'd probably be lethal in a spread executing direct snap runs on undermanned fronts but he's capable enough in this system as well. The real issue is more his teammates' lack of speed and the lack of space on the field for them to land big plays.

The 2016 Gopher offense

Tracy Claeys hired Jay Johnson of Louisiana-Lafayette who's expected to bring more of the Pistol formation to the Gopher attack but otherwise maintain the power/inside zone focus of the running game.

Towards that end the Gophers return both tight ends, a pair of backs in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith who each had over 100 carries in 2015, and three starting offensive linemen. They should be able to build off last year's run game success but the bigger gains for the offense are going to come from paring down the system and adding explosiveness.

The former could allow the Gophers to grow more consistent as they focus on mastering a few key concepts and techniques. The Pistol formation, for instance, could allow the Gophers to maintain consistent footwork and angles for Leidner and save time practicing different drops and footwork. Of course, then NFL scouts would have less film of him working from under center to clutch as a security blanket if they want to draft him high in 2017.

Johnson's system is also heavier on using passing concepts that build off the running game, such as play-action rollouts, and it's clear they don't spend a ton of time working on the West Coast, drop-back passing game. Leidner is good there, so they probably won't abandon it, but again the Gophers could be more efficient and mistake free by pruning their system.

The bigger edge would come from adding some speed to the equation. They do return receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who had 8.5 yards per target a year ago, and are hoping that Floridian Eric Carter will bring a little more juice. Johnson's scheme is heavier on sweeps as a means to involve speedy receivers off the run game then drop back passing so both could see more action in the run game from that dimension.

Johnson could try to give the Gopher skill players more space to work in with more spread sets, but that would require removing one of two good blocking tight ends from the box. The better path is simplifying the passing game to generate a higher hit rate than Leidner's 59.5% completion rate, and getting more effective speed on the field at receiver. Whatever route they take, the Gophers need to be more explosive and less plodding on offense in 2016 to win the Big 10 West.

If that happens, and we see Leidner's yards per pass go up north of eight yards per attempt, then we can revisit this "first round" discussion.