Stretching and warm-ups were complete, and his first practice as coach of the Gophers was about to start. Jerry Kill blew his whistle, and his players ran to the center of the field and gathered around, ready to hear the new coach's instructions. What they heard set the tone for the next two hours. When I blow the whistle, Kill said by way of introduction, you don't jog over. You sprint. Now get back where you were -- we're going to practice it again.
"You can tell Coach Kill is a no-nonsense guy," senior safety Kim Royston said after two hours of learning in a hurry. "The pace out here is something I've never experienced before."
The pace was fast, the intensity palpable, and the attention to detail was nit-pickingly precise. Spring practice might be Kill's opportunity to investigate the talents and weaknesses of his roster, but Thursday's opener also was the first chance for the players, most of them holdovers from the Tim Brewster administration, to take in the Jerry Kill Experience.
The verdict? Wait a sec, let them catch their breath.
"These coaches really get after it. They were going nonstop, and they keep us going," said senior tailback Duane Bennett, noting that during 11-on-11 drills, one squad of players run a play while the next would huddle up, keeping things moving. "Their enthusiasm bleeds over to the players. When your coaches are that excited, it makes you more excited to go do things right."
To watch Kill and his close-knit staff at work, you might believe the Gophers could barely tie their shoes correctly, much less complete a pass or make a tackle. Plenty of coaches are tightly-wired, but few sprint around the field like a special-teams wedge-buster, delivering blistering critiques for missed assignments (and a few atta-boys, too). Kill seemed constantly on the verge of diving for a fumble, and his assistants were just as demanding.
"You'll definitely get your butt chewed if you're half-stepping," Royston said.
Bennett said he found out the consequences of making a mistake. But he didn't mind the comeuppance.
"A lot of people may think of it as discipline, but it's really about learning. When they get in your face, really identify what your mistake is, no matter how big or small, it reiterates what you need to do," Bennett said.
"But at the same time, they pull you aside and let you know you're in good hands, that you're learning. It's not a good thing you made a mistake, but it's good that you've made it now so we can correct it."
There were plenty of mistakes, many of them accountable to the four-month layoff since they were last on the field. MarQueis Gray, taking his first practice snaps as the Gophers' likeliest quarterback, overthrew receivers by 5 yards during the initial passing drill, and he was still mad at himself two hours later.
"The 1-on-1 was pretty horrible. I don't even want to watch that on film tomorrow," Gray said, "but I've just got to come back tomorrow and do better."
So do they all, obviously. One mid-March practice won't win a Big Ten football game, and Kill said he expects execution to get worse, not better, at least for awhile as the players are given more to learn.
"The next four to five days will be difficult because we put more stuff in. ... It's never going to look pretty in practice," Kill said. That's OK, though -- making life as difficult as possible in practice will make the games that much easier, he said. As an example, near the end of the two-hour workout, Kill suddenly ordered his players to sprint sideline to sideline, partly to see how many would complain -- none did, he noted happily -- and partly to see whether fatigue would cause his linemen to jump offsides.
"We want practice to be difficult and tough and fast," he said. "When you get in the games, things will seem to slow down."
• Three Gophers were limited by injury. Sophomore Victor Keise, who underwent ankle surgery, and junior linebacker Spencer Reeves, recovering from a torn labrum, wore green limited-contact jerseys. Junior lineman Austin Hahn is out for the spring after knee surgery.
Royston, however, was back on the field nearly a year after breaking his left leg, and he said the practice meant a lot to him.
"It really hurt my heart [to sit out] my senior year," said Royston, who estimated he's "90 percent" healthy but with little lingering pain. "Coming out with my cleats and jersey on, knowing I was going to take part with my teammates, it was definitely emotional."