Five things to watch as the Kill Era begins

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2011 - 12:34 AM
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Gophers coach Jerry Kill watching MarQueis Gray in the spring.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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There's no easing into the football season under Jerry Kill.

The Gophers open their first fall training camp under their new coach Monday, and they will do it at a full sprint, in a style that Kill described recently as "controlled chaos."

Three sets of offensive players will huddle up at once, three corresponding units of defensive players will do the same, and practices will proceed at a never-stop-moving sort of pace.

"You learn a lot more by doing something than by standing and watching," Kill said. "We'll get everyone moving, then look at the film later."

Amid the commotion, five factors will be especially worth watching for as the 105 members of the Gophers prepare for their Sept. 3 debut at USC.

1 The welcome mat

Roughly two dozen new Gophers players will take part in their first practice, most of them freshmen who signed on in February. A few of them should draw attention early, particularly the quarterbacks. Max Shortell, a 6-6 Kansan, and Dexter Foreman, a run-pass threat from Texas, will join three holdovers in a scramble for backup duty behind MarQueis Gray.

The Gophers will also get their first on-field look at Tommy Olson, their top-rated offensive-line recruit and brother of starting left tackle Ed Olson, along with twins Kyle and Luke McAvoy, offensive linemen from Bloomington, Ill. And wide receiver Malcolm Moulton, a transfer from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, will try to add depth to the Gophers' thinnest position.

2 Bigger and stronger?

Eric Klein, the assistant coach who oversees the Gophers' workout program, has been called "the reason for my success" by coach Jerry Kill, and after working with his new players for seven months, there is reason to believe his efforts are having an effect.

Exhibit A is Gray, the junior quarterback who played at 225 pounds last year but said last week he is up to 245 pounds thanks to Klein's program. That's big for a quarterback, but Gray figures to need some bulk to absorb the pounding he will likely take as a scrambler.

As for the rest of the roster, Kill, whose contact with players is limited by NCAA rule during the summer, says he has received good reports from Klein. But it's impossible to know for sure until they take the field.

"Did they put the work in this summer? Did they do what they needed to do in the weight room, [and] conditioningwise?" Kill said. "I challenged them at the end of the spring that they had to be a lot better. Hopefully, they've done their work."

3 Rebuilding the rush

The Gophers' nine sacks last season were the fewest by any FBS team, and Kill's defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys, has made beefing up that total one of his priorities. How he will do so should start becoming clear this month, but linebacker Mike Rallis said he is encouraged that the defensive line will get more help from behind.

"The main thing is, this staff isn't going to pigeon-hole guys into one thing. They're going to mix it up, put different guys in position to make plays," said Rallis, who has been doing speed work this summer in preparation. "If everyone can blitz, the offense doesn't know who's coming."

Three starters return on the defensive line, including Anthony Jacobs, whose two sacks in 2010 are the most on the roster. But the linebacking corps, with six players who have received extensive playing time, should be the strength of the defense. Rallis expects the pass rush to reflect that.

"It's going to be an exciting defense to play, and exciting to watch," he said. "I think we'll bring a lot more penetration, and get upfield to disrupt thing as opposed to just trying to control our gaps."

4 Catching up

The Gophers have three pass-catchers who averaged more than 40 receiving yards last season. Trouble is, one is a tight end (Eric Lair), one is now the quarterback (Gray) and one is coming off a knee injury, albeit minor, in the spring (Da'Jon McKnight). So wide receiver is understandably one of the Gophers' biggest concerns of fall workouts.

Junior Brandon Green caught 42 passes over two seasons before a knee injury wiped out his 2010 season, so he could make an impact if his knee is sound. Kill brought in Ge'Shun Harris, who took part in spring drills, and Moulton from junior colleges, but the coach has said he normally expects transfers to need a year to acclimate before they're ready to make a difference.

On the other hand, Marcus Jones, a true freshman from North Carolina, seems to be a quick study. He received extensive work at slot receiver in the spring, and Kill seems open to giving him playing time before his 18th birthday.

5 Gray area

The other areas are important, but few doubt that the Gophers' season depends upon Gray's ability to blossom into a Big Ten-caliber quarterback. Gray has done all the workouts and film study, but Kill said he's interested in learning whether the 20-year-old Indianapolis native is ready to take over leadership of the team, too.

"He was one of the guys in the huddle [last year], but now it's his huddle and he has to change. He has to be in charge, and that changes relationships," Kill said late last month. "He worked on that in the spring, and I know he's worked on being a leader this summer, organizing [workouts] and so forth. But it's something that you can't just talk about, you have to do it, and so we'll see."

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