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Dan Orseske kicked the ball during football practice.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

GOPHERS FOOTBALL SPRING PRACTICE

Spring game: 1 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium • Free admission

Unvarnished truth drives U coach, punter

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • April 17, 2011 - 11:22 PM

A 3-9 record inspires an avalanche of denunciation. So it doesn't particularly surprise Gophers punter Dan Orseske to learn that some guy is going on TV and radio all over the Twin Cities to point out the embarrassing truth that Minnesota had the least effective punting unit in the nation last season.

"I've just got to ignore all the negative stuff that people say," Orseske said. "I [use it to] keep myself motivated."

Good advice. But isn't it a little bit harder when the complainer is your own coach?

Yes, Jerry Kill doesn't hold back when he discusses the punting unit he inherited, because he believes in football's first commandment: Thou shalt win the battle for field position. "The biggest offensive play is the punt," Kill said, and the Gophers' new coach is living that catechism this spring by tutoring the punting team personally.

Kill mentioned improving the punting team on the day he was introduced as the new coach last December, and he wasn't five minutes into his first spring football news conference before he volunteered the ugly stats: that the 30.9 yards the Gophers picked up on an average punt last year were the fewest among the 120 top-level teams in college football.

"Eight times the ball didn't go across the 50. Know how many times [the opponent] scored? Eight times," Kill said. "We better get that straightened out, or we're not going to win any games."

Wow. Wouldn't want to be that punter, right?

Actually, it's not so bad, Orseske said. "I know what he means," said the Chicago native who, to be fair, was only a redshirt freshman when handed the job last fall. "The punt team, last year we all struggled a little bit. But I think we're a lot better this year."

Everything is different, from the way the kickers warm up, to the long-snapper's technique, to the footwork that Orseske and backup David Schwerman use.

"Coach Kill showed us some new steps -- he's been working with us one-on-one on that," Orseske said. "We're getting better."

He is understandably wary of declaring the problem solved, considering that even when Orseske was going through the worst of his slump last year he still was regularly booming 60-yard punts and longer in practice. He's doing it again, and Kill -- who has made it clear that responsibility for punting failures lie with the entire unit, not just Orseske -- said his sophomore punter is giving him confidence that fourth downs won't be such problem for the Gophers this year.

"We've punted the ball pretty well. We're getting it off under 2.0 [seconds] right now, and that's important.," the coach said. "They're two-stepping it, getting it out below 2.0, with pretty good snaps. If you can punt that ball in 2.0 and down, you're going to be in pretty good shape most of the time."

The Gophers have scrapped, for the moment anyway, the rugby-style punts that Orseske was instructed to try midway through last season, in hopes of buying him more time. He would take two or three steps to his left, then kick the ball on the run, an unfamiliar style that the punter said made him uncomfortable at first.

"I've never been taught the rugby style. I'm more just, catch the ball and kick it," Orseske said. Still, he plans to continue working on rugby kicks on his own this summer, just to improve his technique and give the Gophers the option of trying it when appropriate.

And mostly, he's going to keep working on blocking out negativity and improving his success rate. "I'm more mentally tough than last year," Orseske said. "I'm a lot more hungry to improve from last year."

At least that won't be too hard, considering the Gophers ranked 120th out of 120. (Keep in mind, however: Kill's Northern Illinois Huskies ranked 105th. So it takes more than only coaching.)

"If we improve that halfway down the line," Kill said last month, "we'll probably win two [more] games."

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