Super Preps 2011: Kill follows instincts, not ratings

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 25, 2014 - 4:20 PM

That's the new Gophers coach's recruiting philosophy, and it has served him well so far.

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Mahtomedi offensive lineman Tommy Olson is considered by many to be the top in-state recruit. He is headed to the Gophers.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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There probably won't be any "five-star" football recruits signing with the Gophers on Wednesday, and Minnesota's new class won't rank atop the Big Ten.

None of it bothers Jerry Kill.

The new Gophers coach isn't merely dismissive of the various rating systems that attempt to make a science out of guesswork over how teenagers will perform three or four years from now, he's practically hostile toward them. "We don't pay any attention to that, to 'he's the 14th-rated tight end' or something. I know some people do," Kill said. "Those star ratings, they give the impression that there's only this many talented kids out there. And it's not true. There are a lot of really good players."

Eight of those players make up the Star Tribune's 13th class of Super Preps, a distinction given to the high school seniors in the state deemed to have the most college potential. Half of those eight players are expected to sign national letters of intent with the Gophers when the signing period begins Wednesday.

In a year that will reveal all sorts of changes in how the football program is run, Kill's approach to recruiting offers one of the first glimpses of the new coach's style. And similar to his method of filling his staff, Kill relies wholeheartedly on a system that has worked before, that has carried him to success at four previous -- albeit lower-level -- stops.

If there is a golden rule to recruiting, Kill said, it's this: Fit the players to your team, and not the other way around.

"I don't care how many stars you have behind your name," Kill said, "if you're going in a different direction than everyone else, it's not going to work."

For that reason, Kill and his assistant coaches do all of their own evaluation of recruits, "at least six sets of eyes on every player," the coach said, including his own; each position coach has veto power over any of his potential players.

Summoning the discipline to watch film on every player and draw their own conclusions might seem like an obvious step, but Kill said it's one that not everyone takes. He knows of some programs that rely heavily on recruiting services and websites, he said, and even more that offer scholarships to recruits primarily based upon how many other offers that player receives.

"I don't get it -- how do you really get to know a kid if you just walk in, meet him one time, and say, 'OK, we're offering him?'" Kill said. "I've seen it -- people go, 'This school is offering this kid, and this school is offering, so we'd better offer him, too.' But you have to do your homework."

You have to have patience, too, Kill said, something that's increasingly difficult to come by as the competition for players heats up.

"The way recruiting is now, everyone starts offering really early. To be honest, there are a lot of mistakes being made," Kill said. "I've seen teams fill their commitments, then a kid grows three inches and puts on 25 pounds and turns into a great player, and he's not being recruited like the other guys. It's speeded up so fast, there are more recruiting mistakes than ever right now. And we have to take advantage of that."

The 300-mile radius rule

They want to start at home, of course. "The first thing you have to do in Minnesota," former Gophers coach Lou Holtz advised recently, "is put a wall up around the state borders. Keep your best players at home."

Kill's intentions are identical. He plans to extract talent from the Texas-Florida-Chicago sources that most Midwest schools explore, and open a Northeast pipeline for kids already used to an urban, wintry setting.

But the best place to start recruiting, he said, is within a 300-mile radius of campus -- driving distance for parents. To that end, Kill immediately reached out to high school coaches, something that Kill's predecessor, Tim Brewster, and probably every Gophers coach before him espoused, but with which achieved only mild success.

"He's really connecting with the coaches. He's someone you want to hitch your wagon to, a real straight shooter," said Totino-Grace coach Jeff Ferguson, whose Eagles have won six Class 4A championships in the past eight seasons. Ferguson said he "never had a conversation" with Brewster, even when the Gophers pursued his players. Added Ferguson: "He's looking for high-character guys who will work hard to improve. You can make a lot of hay with guys who will bleed for the University of Minnesota."

He found one in safety Grayson Levine of Eden Prairie, who was headed to Northern Iowa until Kill called in December.

"He made me feel like one of his guys but said he would challenge me. There was no b.s.," said Levine, who was not pursued by Brewster's staff. "My dad asked him, 'Can he play in the Big Ten?' Coach said yes, but I need work on my speed. He makes you excited to get to work."

Well, Kill has set a pretty good example since he was hired Dec. 4, traveling the country in hopes of accomplishing in seven weeks what most of his competitors have been at for a year or more.

"You can spin it negatively, that we're in here late and it's such a scramble, and it is. But are we going to make an excuse or find a way to get it done?" Kill said. "We'll find a way. We're laying a good foundation here."

And already starting on 2012. "Having a whole year will make a big difference. I told a young man last night, 'I'm going to make you look me in the eye and tell me you want to leave the state to play Big Ten football,'" said Matt Limegrover, the Gophers offensive coordinator. "I'm going to make it impossible for you to say you want to play for someone other than Coach Kill."

That's not easy, apparently. Kill might not look Hollywood, but by all accounts, he's a pretty good salesman.

"Coach Kill seems more like a real coach than a recruiter or a talker," said Devin Crawford-Tufts, a wideout from Edina and one of this year's top recruits. "Coach Brewster talked really big, but everything about Coach Kill seems more down to Earth. He seems like he really knows what he's doing."

The Gophers figure to sign as many as 27 players Wednesday, including at least three junior-college transfers and four Minnesotans. Among the latter group is Mahtomedi offensive lineman Tommy Olson, considered by many to be this year's top in-state recruit.

Kill and his staff of loyal assistants -- most have been with him for a decade or more at several different stops -- have rushed through a last-minute recruiting process: reassuring players who promised Brewster that they would attend Minnesota, nudging a handful who don't fit toward other schools, and especially trying to sell their new school to the best players who will listen.

Leave no stone unturned

The process hasn't been easy, and the results figure to be judged as only so-so, particularly among their Big Ten brethren, though the coaching staff -- like coaches everywhere -- will insist they are delighted with the class.

But "there aren't many superstars left out there," Limegrover said. "No offense to the guys still on the fence, but the superstars are gone already for a reason. That doesn't mean we won't sign guys who can help us win."

Some guys who might help won't sign at all. Players who don't rate as highly, particularly just out of high school before they have been coached by the college staff, can turn out to be far more valuable than projected, the Gophers' new staff believes.

Kill's Northern Illinois teams were good examples of that philosophy. The Huskies went 11-3 in 2010, a school record for wins that included a Humanitarian Bowl victory. They did it with seven starters who originally came to NIU as walk-ons.

Chad Spann, the running back who punished Minnesota with 223 yards and two touchdowns last September? Walk-on. Guard Joe Pawlak, the Huskies' most valuable offensive lineman? Walk-on.

"I'm not saying we're going to build this program with walk-ons, but you would be amazed how solid some of the kids you get that way can be with a little coaching," Limegrover said of Kill's history of challenging near-miss recruits to join the team and compete for scholarships. "Behind every team's star players are under-the-radar guys who worked hard and made themselves valuable."

The Kill system has an impressive track record: Each of Kill's four previous teams improved as his own recruits filtered onto the roster. But the Gophers' new staff knows that skeptics abound about their ability to continue that trend in the Big Ten. It's one thing to recruit players to the Missouri Valley or Mid-American conferences, doubters say, where you're pursuing teenagers who may be happy just to be recruited. But can the new staff attract players who have dozens of other options?

"Absolutely. We've been recruiting Big Ten kids for three years at [Northern Illinois]," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "You lose a lot of guys to the bigger schools, but we got some, too. And now, we can sell a BCS program to kids. That BCS label means a lot -- we've never been able to swing that stick."

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