With Jerry Kill on leave to treat his epilepsy, Gophers football players know they’ll be answering to a man with a different personality in acting head coach Tracy Claeys.
But Claeys also is an extension of Kill, having worked for him for the past 19 years.
“Coach Claeys came in and talked to us last week and said he’s not as much of a big screamer [as Kill],” Gophers kicker Chris Hawthorne said Tuesday. “But at the same token, the expectations and the standards don’t drop at all.”
Claeys has spent game days in the coaching booth as the team’s defensive coordinator, but he’ll call the defensive plays from the sideline and handle the head coaching duties until Kill returns.
There still is no timetable for Kill’s return, but Claeys said he doesn’t expect him to be at the Northwestern game Saturday. Claeys had been getting updates from Kill’s wife, Rebecca, until Kill called him Monday night.
“We had a great conversation,” Claeys said. “He’s doing good. We talked about our last game [at Michigan], talked about Northwestern’s last game … It was good to talk football with him.”
Kill has played his quarterback decisions close to the vest, but Claeys didn’t hesitate Tuesday to name Mitch Leidner as his starter for the Northwestern game. In another twist, Claeys said he’d also like to give Philip Nelson a few snaps early in the game, so he wouldn’t have to come off the bench cold if needed later in the game.
“If there comes a time when everything’s going pretty good, not with our back to the wall, we can get Philip a series in the first half,” Claeys said. “I’d prefer to do that, rather than all of a sudden at the very end of the game or something, where we throw him in.”
Claeys said he is comfortable filling in for Kill, but he sure wishes it hadn’t come to this. Kill missed the first full game in his 20-year coaching career Oct. 5, when he was unable to make the Michigan trip. Seizures have now kept him from coaching at least one half in three of the Gophers’ past eight games, dating to last November.
Epilepsy is a disease that affects nearly 3 million Americans, yet 70 percent can gain control of their seizures with the proper medication, according to the National Epilepsy Foundation. Kill was first diagnosed with epilepsy in 2005, but this is his first extended leave.
Claeys’ only experiences as head coach have come in Kill’s absence.
“I really don’t look at it as being a head coach,” Claeys said. “It’s Jerry Kill’s program. It’ll always be his program. There are game management decisions that have to be made, but we’ll do it just like Coach Kill does.”
Explaining the differences between Kill and Claeys, senior safety Brock Vereen cracked a slight smile.
“Kill is much more on you about certain things,” Vereen said. “But Coach Claeys still demands the very best out of us. It’ll be cool [having Claeys on the sideline]. He’s the guru. Even though he likes to give credit away, to have him there’s going to help a lot.
“I’ve seen him mad before, but he doesn’t show his emotions a lot, which is good. That’s what you want in a leader. He’s easy to play for.”
In some ways, the news that Kill was taking a leave came as a relief to players.
“There might have been shock early on, but we’re happy for him,” Vereen said. “He’s more than a coach, he’s a second father to most of us. We know that this is the best thing for him, so we’re in full support of that.”
Added Vereen: “It’s an inspirational thing, it’s not a negative thing. It can be [negative], but we’re not going to let it. This is definitely motivation to have success for him.”
• Wide receiver Derrick Engel (concussion symptoms), safety Cedric Thompson (concussion symptoms), cornerback Martez Shabazz (separated shoulder) and Derrick Wells (shoulder stinger) have all returned to practice.
• Vereen has practiced at cornerback, just in case Wells and Shabazz aren’t ready to go. Vereen started 12 games as a cornerback as a sophomore before moving to safety last season.
• Third-string quarterback Chris Streveler remains out because of a hand injury, so freshman Conor Rhoda will be available in case something should happen to both Leidner and Nelson.