It's one week until the Gophers open training camp, and while everyone around football -- players, coaches and fans alike -- is eager to get amped up for another season, it also brings to a close one of the most promising off-seasons the program has experienced in years. Consider how low Minnesota football fortunes seemed last November, before the victories over Illinois and Iowa, or what a shrug (or worse) the initial announcement of Jerry Kill's hiring brought.
Seven months later, there is genuine optimism and even excitement for a program that lost nine straight games last year.
And there's no debating that the optimism extends to recruits, too. Over the past week, Kill cemented his commitment with Edina safety Nick Rallis and received a verbal from Blue Earth offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig. The latter adds yet another highly rated blocker to the Gophers' roster, but also represents a large symbolic victory for Minnesota.
"His finalists were the teams that Minnesota has to step up against to improve its recruiting," said Zach Johnson, publisher of Gopher Illustrated, a rivals.com website that closely follows Minnesota recruiting. "When you've identified an instate kid who can play at the Big Ten level, and Iowa and Wisconsin identify the same kid, you've got to get him. If [Iowa coach] Kirk Ferentz or [Wisconsin coach] Bret Bielema land Pirsig, they're going to be the first ones to call [Hopkins receiver] Andre McDonald and all the other Minnesota kids and say, 'See, we're still the ones who are going to dominate Minnesota.' For Kill to get that commitment in his first year is huge going forward."
McDonald initially said he was headed to Minnesota in February, but backed off that choice after Ohio State began its pursuit. He remains undecided, with the Gophers still in pursuit.
Pirsig is listed at 6-foot-9 and 300 pounds, and joins St. Thomas Academy guard Isaac Hayes as the prize of the Gophers' offensive line recruits. He attended Kill's camp this summer, helping make him comfortable with the new coaching staff.
Rallis is 6-foot and 200 pounds, the brother of Gophers linebacker Mike Rallis, who confirmed Friday that his younger sibling will join the team in 2012. Rallis had committed to previous coach Tim Brewster, and his status was in question when Kill was hired. "They just needed some time [to decide], but he met with Coach Kill and accepted an offer," Mike Rallis said.
Should McDonald and Osseo tight end Will Johnson, who also lists Minnesota among his final choices, accept Kill's offer, it would give the Gophers a sweep of the highest-rated born-and-bred Minnesotans. Along with Mankato West quarterback Phillip Nelson and St. Thomas Academy guard Isaac Hayes, "Kill would be six-for-six with the top Minnesota kids," Johnson said. "You're pretty much done with in-state recruiting, and it's Aug. 1. That's pretty impressive, especially considering you haven't coached a game at this level."
Not a bad summer, considering Kill has also spent time winning over the state's high school coaches and a significant portion of the fan base, too, by traveling Minnesota to meet people and sell his program. That's a lot of progress being made off the field -- just in time to start working on it on the field, too.