Jerry Kill’s track record suggests big things are possible for the Gophers football team this year in his third season as coach. At Southern Illinois, his teams went 5-18 before breaking out at 10-2 in Year 3. At Northern Illinois, his teams went 13-13 before going 10-3 in Year 3.
But Kill is a realist. When first hired in December 2010, he said this rebuilding effort would take patience. With camp opening Friday, he happily details the program’s progress but says this is more comparable to where Northern Illinois was in Year 2.
In Kill’s second season at Northern Illinois (2009), the Huskies went 7-6, losing a hard-fought game to Wisconsin and defeating Purdue before going 5-3 in the Mid-American Conference.
“We were just fortunate at Southern and Northern to put three recruiting classes together that were really good,” Kill said. “So we’re really kind of in Year 2 at our place.”
Northern Illinois hired Kill in December, just as Minnesota did, giving his staff a short window to compile a recruiting class before signing day in early February. Several top players from Minnesota’s 2011 recruiting class — Josh Campion, Drew Goodger, Michael Amaefula, Theiren Cockran, Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells — committed after Kill was hired.
That said, Kill keeps calling this year’s incoming freshman class his “second recruiting class,” even though it’s technically his third.
“You have to learn the culture of a school and the state,” Kill said. “It took us a little while at Southern Illinois to figure out how we were going to recruit there, and at Northern, and the same thing at Minnesota. We’ve got a pretty good take on where we’re at right now.”
After going 3-9 under Tim Brewster and interim coach Jeff Horton in 2010, the Gophers went 3-9 again under Kill in 2011 and then 6-7 last year. For the past three years, they’ve gone 2-6 in the Big Ten. The Gophers returned to a bowl game last year for the first time since 2009, blowing a late lead in a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
“I really wasn’t too angry that we lost; we ran out of time,” said senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. “With how much we improved, it brings motivation for camp. We want to show people who we really are. Numbers don’t lie. First year, we won three games. Last year we won six. So we’ll keep building off that this year.”
With an assistant coaching staff that’s been together for a decade plus, Kill has brought continuity to a program that was in constant transition under Brewster. The program’s classroom performance was a mess, too.
In 2009, the Gophers posted a 917 multiyear APR (academic progress rate) score, losing three scholarships. The latest APR numbers showed the Gophers posted a 994 score for the 2011-12 school year, a program record.
Hageman said the other big improvement under Kill has come in the weight room, where the senior views Eric Klein as one of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country.
Kill said Mike Rallis, a senior from last year’s team, recently stopped him in the hallway and noted the improved commitment he saw from players during summer workouts.
“You look at Wisconsin, Ohio State, Nebraska — you think those kids are going home [during the summer]? No, they’re working,” Kill said. “And we’re at Minnesota. We’ve got to work harder than they do.
“And I think this is the first summer and spring they’ve really bought into that wholeheartedly as a team. That doesn’t guarantee you any wins. It guarantees you the opportunity to move your program forward.”
Kill said he expects this team to be better than last year’s, though he’s careful not to state a specific goal in terms of number of wins.
“We need to keep climbing the mountain,” he said. “We need to win more Big Ten games; we haven’t done that in a while.
“I feel cautiously optimistic that can happen, but we need to stay healthy. We need one of those signature wins so to speak, where you get over the hump in a critical game and win by a field goal. It seemed like that happened at Northern, that happened at Southern, and now we need to have it happen here at Minnesota.”