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Gophers football coach Jerry Kill, left, asks his players to “play fast” — something they had trouble doing a year ago as they learned his system.

Tsong-Taatarii, Richard, Star Tribune

GOPHERS SPRING FOOTBALL

Gophers football: Starting from Square Two

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 30, 2012 - 11:56 AM

Matt Limegrover was headed to the practice field last week for the Gophers football team's first spring workout when he realized he had forgotten something. Something important.

"I almost had a panic attack as we were heading out. We didn't have any first-day basics -- where to meet, how to line up, who stands where in the huddle -- on the day's schedule," the offensive coordinator said. "[I thought,] 'Hey are these kids going to know? Should we go over everything?' But once we got out there, everyone just fell right into line. They have it all figured out this year."

The difference between coach Jerry Kill's first spring practices 12 months ago and the sessions the Gophers hold three times a week this month is evident in almost every way, from the speed with which each drill is performed to the amount of time spent on remedial concepts to the organized way the practice proceeds.

"It was like Carver Junior High last year," Limegrover joked.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," added defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite. "We didn't know what we're doing, and [the coaches were always] getting on us."

Oh, yeah, that's one more big change: the blood pressure of the coaches. It's not only the weather that is far sunnier this spring.

"Watching the coaching staff, you haven't seen anybody have to blow up and get on a player," said Eric Klein, whose offseason strength and conditioning program has had a noticeable effect as well. "They were held to higher expectations, and it's given them a higher starting point this spring."

The coaches also have a different starting point. When spring drills began in 2011, Kill and his staff had been on campus for less than four months, and much of that was devoted to a hurry-up recruiting scramble. The coaches had little idea what any player could do or how each would fit in -- heck, they barely knew all the names.

"It's always bad when you're yelling, 'Hey, 63!'" Limegrover said. "That doesn't create a bond between coaches and players."

Not that many of the Gophers had formed much of a bond with their coaches anyway. The constant turnover in Tim Brewster's coaching staff -- three offensive coordinators and three defensive coordinators in four seasons -- meant that players had grown used to an arm's-length relationship with their leaders and a playbook that changed more often than their computer passwords.

"We were like, 'OK, now who are these guys?'" Wilhite said.

Kill thought that same thing about them. "It's just [a matter of] being comfortable. I know who our players are a little more," Kill said. "You can't coach all kids the same way. I probably made some mistakes -- who to motivate, how to motivate. I've learned more about them."

And knowledge creates harmony. "A lot of it is mental," Wilhite said. "We were struggling just with the base defense last year, and every time you make a mistake, you start worrying and make more. From a D-line perspective, mental errors, guys going the wrong way, we might have had two in [the first] four practices this year. Last year, it was all the time."

When mistakes are made, Kill prefers to point them out quickly but not stop the go-go-go pace of practice for a point-by-point lecture.

"We're trying to do a better job of coaching off the film. Move practice along" and go over the mistakes later in position meetings, Kill said. "You don't want to coach caution into things, so we're [saying], 'Hey, play fast, and if you make a mistake, move on. We'll get it corrected off the film.'"

The Gophers can handle that pace because they are undoubtedly more fit this spring. Once the 2011 season ended, they went directly into Klein's workout program, without the six-week lag that the coaching change produced a year earlier. During a full-squad drill Tuesday to work on running plays, the Gophers kept up a constant three-snaps-per-minute pace by alternating 11-man offensive units, forcing the defense to make play after exhausting play to simulate gameday exertion.

They couldn't have done that drill a year ago.

"It's not even in the same realm. We're already farther along than we were at any point during spring last year, because of our pad level, the conditioning, the way we're running [pass] routes, the way we're defending routes, the way the defensive line is coming off the ball, the way we're bending our knees and getting our feet in the ground," Limegrover marveled. "Now it looks like a Big Ten football team."

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