Building a Quarterback
Jim Zebrowski has developed great running quarterbacks in the past. Mitch Leidner could be next.
by Jack Satzinger
Jim Zebrowski was always better at baseball than football, but he’s made a living molding young quarterbacks.
He currently serves as the Gophers’ quarterbacks coach, schooling the most important position in football — a position that’s been a turnstile for Minnesota since Jerry Kill and his staff came to Minneapolis in 2011.
Zebrowski has worked with every signal caller since then, and for the first time, he’s found one who possesses nearly every trait he looks for in the position.
In the past, MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell — holdovers from Tim Brewster’s stint as head coach — struggled to make an impact in Kill’s first two seasons with the Gophers.
Philip Nelson — touted as the quarterback of the future — replaced Gray and Shortell midway through the 2012 campaign. Nelson entered 2013 as the No. 1 quarterback but shared much of his time under center with Mitch Leidner. A bit wary of losing his starting spot and becoming a backup, Nelson transferred to Rutgers in January.
Now the quarterback position is in the hands of Leidner, an under-recruited downhill runner from Lakeville, Minn. He didn’t come to the Gophers with the pomp and circumstance that Nelson did, but he looks the part of a Zebrowski signal caller.
Zebrowski has taken under-recruited quarterbacks and turned them into all-conference performers in the past — and Leidner could be next.
“You’ve got to love football as a quarterback. You can’t like it,” Zebrowski said. “You’ve got to be done with practice and be excited about watching film.”
Road to Minnesota
Shortly after Kill was introduced as head coach at Southern Illinois University in 2001, Zebrowski whipped out his phone to make a call. A former graduate assistant for the Salukis, Zebrowski left a message with the athletics department telling Kill he hoped he’d bring the program success.
Kill called him back the next day.
“He didn’t know me,” Zebrowski said, wide-eyed. “He goes, ‘Jimmy. It’s Coach Kill. I’d love to talk ball with you sometime.’”
A few months later, they did. Zebrowski was the offensive coordinator at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., and he drove about 176 miles to meet with Kill.
Kill and assistant coach Brian Anderson made the trip worthwhile, sitting down with Zebrowski to diagram offensive plays for more than nine hours.
“We talked back and forth. I think we helped each other,” Kill said. “He’s a football junkie, and so am I.”
In 2003, Zebrowski was offered the head coaching job at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wis. Zebrowski called Kill, asking whether he should take the position. Kill endorsed the change of scenery, and Zebrowski took the job. To date, it’s the only time in his 23-year career that he’s been a head coach.
He also consulted Kill four years later when newly named Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold tapped him for offensive coordinator.
Zebrowski wasn’t Leipold’s first choice, but he was near the top of his wish list.
“If he wasn’t [plan] 1A, he was quickly 1B,” Leipold said.
The Warhawks won the Division III national championship in Zebrowski’s first season at Whitewater. Their opponent in the title game was the University of Mount Union — Zebrowski’s alma mater.
After he defeated Mount Union again in 2009 to win his second title, Zebrowski’s phone rang once more.
It was Kill. He was looking for another offensive assistant to replace Rutgers-bound P.J. Fleck, and Zebrowski soon joined Northern Illinois as the quarterbacks coach.
A year later, he and the rest of Kill’s staff uprooted to Minnesota.
“It just all kind of hit,” Zebrowski said. “I was not going to pass up the opportunity to work with [Kill] and these guys.”
Building a Quarterback
It’s not hard for Zebrowski to remember the skills a quarterback needs in order to be great.
They’re written down in a 420-page book that occupies the middle of his desk. It’s called “Eyes Up” and was written by NFL-coach-turned-quarterback-trainer Terry Shea.
“There’s no question that one of the themes that comes out of the book is a quarterback needs to have a real passion for his skill development,” Shea said.
Zebrowski has a systematic passion for developing those skills. His office sits feet from the Gophers’ practice field but looks more like an analyst’s workplace than a jock’s. A plethora of nonfiction football books line shelves adjacent to a television he uses to pore over film late at night.
In his career, analyzing the game from all levels has led him to unorthodox ideas.
Leipold said Zebrowski has a knack for being innovative on offense. Jeff Donovan, one of Zebrowski’s quarterbacks at Whitewater, couldn’t agree more.
“This is the truth,” Donovan said. “He is the best offensive mind that I’ve ever gotten the pleasure to play for.”
Zebrowski prefers quarterbacks who can pass accurately over those with great arm strength. Donovan had both, but he also had something even more important — something Zebrowski looks for in each signal caller he recruits.
“He just had whatever that ‘it’ is,” Zebrowski said. “You knew he could make it right.”
That’s the foundation of Zebrowski’s quarterback philosophy: an innate ability to make something out of nothing on the gridiron. It takes both physical and mental toughness, which Zebrowski calls “functional intelligence.”
“It’s not easy when you’re out there. You’re seeing 9,000 different coverages, blitzes coming all over the place,” Zebrowski said. “There’s 50-some, 60-some, 70,000 people, and you’ve got to motion, shift, move people and read coverage and then make the right decision.”
Sherard Poteete, the current Southeast Missouri State offensive coordinator who Zebrowski coached at Southern Illinois, described functional intelligence as keeping things simple.
“He tried to make it easy,” Poteete said of Zebrowski. “He tried to make it simple.”
Zebrowski said Poteete looked like a fullback when he ran with the ball, using his legs to get out of trouble when the defense blitzed or an offensive lineman missed an assignment.
Still, mistakes can’t always be avoided, so Zebrowski stresses the “next-play mentality” — looking forward instead of dwelling on the past.
“I think the good thing about him [is] he’s going to get on you so you know what you’re doing wrong, but he’s going to pick you up afterwards,” said Ryan Maiuri, Zebrowski’s quarterback at Lakeland.
Maiuri followed Zebrowski to Minnesota to learn more about coaching and is now a graduate assistant with the Gophers. Maiuri said he wasn’t a gifted athlete — but neither was Zebrowski.
“I think me not having all the game experiences a lot of other people had in college makes me want to see the kids I coach have those opportunities,” Zebrowski said. “It puts a little chip on my shoulder. Just because I wasn’t a great player doesn’t mean I can’t produce great quarterbacks. That’s what drives me sometimes.”
No Rankings, No Problem
Zebrowski’s modest playing career as Mount Union’s backup quarterback is a big reason he doesn’t look at recruits’ rankings.
Just because Division I schools aren’t going after a player doesn’t mean that player can’t succeed at a high level, he said.
A couple of Zebrowski’s former players are proof of that.
Chandler Harnish’s only scholarship offer came from Northern Illinois. The two-star recruit earned playing time right away as a freshman in 2008 but was short of stellar. He didn’t start the first game of his junior season due to a knee injury, and it looked like his football career was being put to bed.
Then Zebrowski woke him up.
“I said, ‘Chandler, you can’t worry about getting hurt anymore, man. You’ve just got to go play. This is your last shot,’” Zebrowski said. “‘Run around. Don’t go out of bounds. Make plays.’”
Make plays he did, all while embracing another phrase Zebrowski stresses: “Enjoy the moment.”
Harnish was finally able to let go and have fun, running past the rest of the Mid-American Conference and leading Northern Illinois to a pivotal win over Minnesota in 2010.
The Gophers fired Brewster three weeks after the loss to Northern Illinois, paving the way for Zebrowski to jump to a power conference after just one year with the Huskies.
After Kill’s staff left Northern Illinois for Minnesota, Harnish took what Zebrowski taught him and had a record senior season. He compiled 1,379 rushing yards — more than any quarterback in the country — to go along with MAC MVP honors.
“It kind of all came together at the right time. Jimmy came into my life at the right time,” said Harnish, now a reserve quarterback for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. “He taught me exactly what I needed to do, and he did it in a way that I respect.”
A year later, Jordan Lynch replaced Harnish as the Huskies’ starting quarterback and didn’t disappoint.
Lynch was a freshman during Zebrowski’s year at Northern Illinois. He had a lot to learn but had the right guy to teach him.
“I feel like he played a key factor in just helping my fundamentals and mechanics,” Lynch said.
Like Harnish, Lynch only had one Division I offer, but he made it count.
Lynch started as a junior and powered Northern Illinois to its first BCS game in conference history. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy during his senior season after rushing for a Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback record of 1,920 yards.
Across the sport as a whole, running quarterbacks — and the dual threat they present — are on the rise.
“The more you can do, the better. Russell Wilson won the Super Bowl, and he’s the master of improvising,” said Lynch, who is now preparing for the 2014 NFL Draft.
A day after Minnesota lost to Syracuse in December’s Texas Bowl, Leidner went to work.
Three weeks later, fellow quarterback Nelson announced he was leaving the Gophers football program, opening the door for Leidner to take the reins as the starter.
Nelson went to Phoenix to train with Shea before opting to transfer to Rutgers.
Shea called the Gophers’ run-heavy offense the “driving issue” behind Nelson’s transfer but said Leidner’s emergence made Nelson fearful of losing the starting spot.
“He felt like he was always more suited to be the starting quarterback in the competition [than Leidner],” Shea said.
Leidner and Nelson shared the quarterback position in 2013, but neither ever gained real momentum.
That shouldn’t be the case next year with Nelson out of the picture and all eyes on Leidner.
“Kids love him because he plays so hard [and] is an A-plus in the weight room. He’s everything you want,” Zebrowski said.
That includes leadership — a quality Leidner’s pass catchers rave about.
“Mitch has just taken over, given us good leadership,” wide receiver Donovahn Jones said.
“We trust him,” fellow receiver Drew Wolitarsky added.
Being seen as a leader has put Leidner’s confidence at an all-time high. He doesn’t have to worry about being “diplomatic,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
Leidner was anything but politically correct in spring practice. A few weeks ago, the 6-foot-4-inch quarterback challenged defensive linemen after the whistle blew.
“That’s why they follow him,” Kill said. “He’s a tough sucker.”
Leidner is one of the more passionate players in recent memory. Zebrowski and Limegrover said he treats everything like a game situation, and they often try to reel him in.
“Practices can sometimes be tough for me because I always want to beat the defense and I want to do so well,” Leidner said.
Leidner’s competitive makeup has Zebrowski feeling nostalgic. It’s eerily similar to another successful quarterback Zebrowski mentored: Lynch.
“That kid will do anything,” Zebrowski said of Leidner. “Jordan [Lynch] is probably faster, but what they both have is that tough-guy mentality.”
Leidner knows Lynch and Harnish and models his game after theirs. He probably won’t be able to match their rushing records, but he flashed his running ability in limited time last season with 407 yards and seven touchdowns.
More playing time next season should mean more rushing yards for Leidner, but the Gophers are planning on increasing passing attempts in 2014 — in part to keep their No. 1 quarterback healthy.
Zebrowski said injuries stunted Gray’s quarterback development with the Gophers. And Nelson was hampered by a right hamstring injury sustained while rushing.
Leidner is trying to learn from his former teammates’ setbacks.
“In my case, being smarter with the football and knowing when to not take the big hit and when to can definitely help me out,” Leidner said.
He’s also learning to be smarter off the field in order to reach Harnish and Lynch’s level. He’s already finished reading “Eyes Up” and is a regular in the film room.
“He’ll watch film tonight, I guarantee you,” Zebrowski said after Minnesota’s April 5 spring practice. “He’ll call me or text me and say, ‘I could have made that throw.’”
After setting Lynch and Harnish up for success, Zebrowski left them for Minnesota. He plans on seeing Leidner’s career through — but if the phone rings, he’ll answer.
“If the right opportunity came up, I’d look into it, but I don’t go looking,” Zebrowski said. “You don’t see college coaching staffs like this.”
Jack Satzinger began covering Gophers football in August and has watched every snap of Jim Zebrowski's three-year tenure at Minnesota. The quarterback position has seen much change in that time, but stability appears to be on the way. This story examines the future of Minnesota's quarterbacks and the life of Zebrowski.
Graphic Sources: ncaa.com, Coach Jim Zebrowski, Southern Illinois University, Millikin University, Gophersports, Northern Illinois, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, MN Daily reporting
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