Chris Hawthorne likes and respects his new head coach. But at least during fall camp, Hawthorne has learned not to trust him.
"Coach [Jerry] Kill has been playing mind games with us," said the Gophers sophomore placekicker. "He'll tell you you aren't going to kick today, or that you'll be kicking during a certain period. And then he'll call you out there when you don't expect it, thinking you're off guard."
It's a matter of simulating game situations, Kill said, since kickers never know when they'll be needed. Some games they'll sit most of the day, then be called upon to win the game in the final seconds, he said. "Is that guy ready? Is the snapper ready? That's the hardest thing for those guys," Kill said. "They've got to be mentally prepared the whole game."
At 6-6, Hawthorne looks ready for anything, including a pickup basketball game. His height makes him ideal for placekicking, Kill said (it gives him an advantage with leverage and power), but it's all new to the transfer student from N.C. State. Hawthorne was a soccer player at his Raleigh, N.C., high school, and picked up football only as a senior. He was an invited walk-on for the Wolfpack as a freshman but decided to switch schools after kicking part-time last season.
Now on scholarship, Hawthorne did well in spring drills, then spent the summer in Alabama with his kicking teacher, Mike McCabe. It's paying off now, he said. "As a unit, it's going really well for us. Jake [Filkins] is snapping the ball really well, Adam [Leuck] has done a great job of holding," Hawthorne said, "and I've started kicking a lot better," including a 50-yard field goal during a scrimmage last week.
He misses soccer but appreciates the opportunity he's getting with the Gophers. And as a reminder of his former sport, he will wear No. 7, his old high school soccer number.
"He's a level-headed kid, real conscientious," Kill said. "He's hard on himself. I don't have to scream at him, because he's already upset at mistakes."
When Kill took over a moribund Southern Illinois team a decade ago, he discovered a star-quality quarterback on his roster in freshman Joel Sambursky. But rather than hand the teenager the football right away, Kill redshirted him, enduring a 1-10 season with his best player on the bench, all for the long-term health of the program. Sambursky became a starter the following fall and graduated as the Salukis' career leading passer.
With that as the model, Kill figured to keep freshman Max Shortell on the sideline this season, since the Mission, Kan., native won't even turn 19 until next Monday. But the quarterback has been too impressive in camp, and the Gophers are too thin at the position, to delay his debut.
"I don't see how we could redshirt him right now," Kill said, pointing out that in 2008, his Northern Illinois team was using its fourth-string quarterback (and nearly upsetting Tennessee) by the season's fifth game. "We're not planning on redshirting anyone at that position right now."
Shortell and the starting quarterback, MarQueis Gray, had a difficult practice Thursday, completing only a handful of passes. But that was by design, Kill said.
"We blitzed [Gray] maybe 13, 14 straight times," Kill said. "We put him in as bad a situation as we can because I want the game to be easy. 'OK, you threw an interception -- now what's the next play? Let's put it behind you and move on.'"