Gophers work to regain normalcy

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2011 - 11:42 PM

With coach Jerry Kill still at the Mayo Clinic, the team planned no major changes.

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Jerry Kill

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By changing virtually nothing this week, the Gophers hope to change almost everything on Saturday.

Jerry Kill remained hospitalized at Mayo Clinic, and his wife Rebecca "is very pleased" with the Gophers coach's progress in overcoming his seizure disorder, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Tuesday. "Hopefully that means we're getting close to a resolution."

Until then, however, Claeys and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said they will handle the team exactly as they did during Kill's absence two weeks ago. Practice went on as usual. Video was watched, corrections were pointed out, game plans were introduced. The quarterback situation remains the same -- MarQueis Gray will start, Max Shortell will play, too -- and the defense is redoubling its efforts to penetrate the offensive backfield.

Even Claeys' expectations for Kill's return hasn't changed. Though he emphasized that there is no timeline yet for the coach to resume running the team, "I expect him to be there" in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday for the Gophers' Big Ten opener, Claeys said. "I'll be shocked if he's not there."

At the same time, Claeys said the coaches are preparing themselves and the players to face the 19th-ranked Wolverines without Kill -- just in case. The coach never has missed a game, but he did once cede control to his coordinators, after a 2005 seizure at Southern Illinois.

"He actually sat between us. So we had communication with him," Claeys joked. Still, "if he's there, he's coaching, all right."

The players were as matter-of-fact about their coach's absence as his assistants, pointing out that they dealt with this situation two weeks ago, and won the following Saturday anyway.

"The only thing different than when Coach Kill's in there is that you don't have that fiery personality. Practice is a little bit quieter, because Coach Kill brings that much energy," center Ryan Wynn said. "We're going to be just as prepared with or without him. We'd love to have him there, but it won't change us."

Actually, the Gophers could use a few changes, given their 1-3 start. The problems are in execution, not personnel, cornerback Brock Vereen said after watching Saturday's 37-24 loss to North Dakota State on tape.

"If there's anything good to take from all the mistakes we made, it's that they were all self-inflicted. Which means they're easier to change," Vereen said. "Pretty much every game, we come out in the second half and play really well. But it's impossible to win when you beat yourself."

The most devastating errors were made by Gray and Shortell, who each threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The quarterbacks were rotating in and out virtually every down by the fourth quarter, and while Limegrover said he doesn't necessarily intend to resort to that again this week -- "You don't necessarily want to go in the middle of a series and change somebody," he said -- he does intend to play both of them at Michigan.

That's because each is showing different strengths, and the Gophers would like to capitalize on the difference between the two. Shortell has appeared the more confident passer, while Gray is the more elusive runner. Gray will remain the starter, Limegrover said, unless it becomes clear "that Max does a significant number of things better than MarQueis," Limegrover said. "But MarQueis is a special kid. There are things we love about him."

Makes no difference to the other offensive players, said tailback Donnell Kirkwood.

"The only thing you have to adjust to is hearing Max's country voice," Kirkwood joked of the freshman from Kansas. "But we have confidence in both of them."

The rest of the two-deep lineup is virtually unchanged, with one exception: Michael Amaefula has moved ahead of junior D.L. Wilhite at defensive end, giving the Gophers bookend freshmen on the pass rush, with Ben Perry at the other end.

Claeys said he expected to speak to Kill before Wednesday's practice, and the coaching staff is preparing in case he doesn't come to Michigan. In that case, Claeys would make strategic calls from the press box, with assistant head coach Bill Miller relaying the instructions and dealing with referees on the sideline.

"The difference is really very minimal," Claeys said. "We're not changing much."

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