Jerry Kill knew Big Ten football would be difficult, and it was. The Gophers went 3-9 in his first season at Minnesota, but the record was hardly the worst of it. Kill suffered an epileptic seizure on the sidelines during a game, and starting linebacker Gary Tinsley died in his sleep just five months after the season ended.
But adversity has toughened the Gophers, Kill says, and the coach expects plenty of improvement. A week before fall practice, the 50-year-old Kill looked ahead to Year 2:
Q Going into your second season here, has your philosophy changed?
A I don't think our philosophy has changed. I just think as a coaching staff we're much more comfortable with where we're at. I think the work ethic of the kids, that's what changed. You've slowly seen kids start to buy into what we're telling them to do, from the weight room to the classroom to discipline. We've seen a slow change -- not all at once, but we're seeing it. Our kids have done a very good job since our season ended. We asked them to get bigger, stronger, and they've done it. We've had some tragedy, some adversity, and I think it's brought us together. I can tell that some kids have grown up, and I'm interested to see how they do.
Q Specifically who?
A Well, the older you get, the wiser you get. And I think that's true on this team -- from Troy Stoudermire to Ra'Shede Hageman to Ed Olson. We've put kids in situations where they had to grow up fast. For instance, Ed -- he realized, boy, at 290 pounds, this is a hard deal, but at 313, I'm a lot stronger, I'm a lot better. Like a lot of our kids, he's done what I asked him to do.
Q You had such a young team last year, and it's even younger this year. You've got 36 new players. Does that make your task harder or easier?
A Well, I'd rather have somebody that's young and hungry than somebody that's old and tired. And I think this team is young and hungry. Does that make it harder? I think we'll make some mistakes that are youthful mistakes, but as long as they work hard, we'll overcome some of that.
Q How much better is MarQueis Gray this year?
A All I can say is, he was much better in the spring than he ever was last fall. I feel good about that position [quarterback], and I feel good about MarQueis, I really do. We have a better idea of how to utilize him, too. So our big deal now is making sure we get players on the field who can help him.
Q MarQueis was so harsh on himself about last year. Is that a good sign?
A I think so. His quarterback coach, Jimmy Zybrowski -- it's amazing how he took Chandler Harnish one year (at Northern Illinois) and made him a very good quarterback the next year. He's very hard on the quarterbacks, he's very honest, and his personality slowly becomes one with them. MarQueis is learning, hey, this is what I need to do to be a better player. Remember, last year at USC, we lined up with a kid who had never played quarterback, and by the end of the year, he got on a roll. I really look for him to have a breakout year. I think he could be as good as anybody in the Big Ten if he works at it.
Q But it won't matter if he doesn't have anyone to hand off to, to throw to.
A Yeah, but I think we've got those people. I'm optimistic about that. I expect [sophomore receiver] Devin Tufts to have a great year, he's worked so hard this summer. And we've got athletic kids who can step up -- they've just got to get confidence that they can do it on Saturdays.
Q Last year, you didn't know for sure in July who would carry the ball, either.
A We weren't very deep last year, but with Rodrick Williams coming in, K.J. [Maye], James Gillum, adding them to the rest of the kids, it gives us so many more options. I've always been a two-back guy a lot in my life, and we were only able to play one last year, with a fullback. Now we have the flexibility to do a lot more offensively. We'll use a bunch of them, and I think they can make a huge difference.
Q Defensively, for years now, the Gophers have needed to put more pressure on the quarterback. Is there any reason to think that it gets better this year?
A We were sure a lot better in the spring. Ra'Shede Hageman, he was outstanding in the spring. I think he can be a force in the Big Ten, I believe that. Cameron Botticelli had a great spring, and we brought in Roland Johnson, a junior college player. I'm anxious to see what he does. (Thieren) Cockran, who we redshirted last year, he's 6-6 and can run. D.L. Wilhite is a year stronger and better. We've had kids put on 10-15 pounds, so we've got a lot more speed and strength. I'm not saying we'll have a hundred sacks, but we're giving ourselves a lot better chance.
Q Speed was obviously such a priority for you in the way you realigned your secondary. It's probably a given that you're faster -- are you better?
A Oh yeah, our back end is improved. It's young, but I think it's highly talented and has a lot of speed. Moving Derrick Wells back to safety, Cedric Thompson having a true spring back there -- those are 210-pound safeties that run 4.5 -- that's something we needed. And Brock Vereen, he tweaked his knee but he's 100 percent. Plus, we brought in three J.C. kids, and we were fortunate -- I think we've hit on all three. So we have some depth there that we didn't have last year.
Q You hear all the time, this is a team being built for 2014. How do you balance that building project with trying to win right now?
A We're building a program, not a team for 2014 or whenever. It's about building the whole thing.
Q Well, here's a for-instance: Would you like MarQueis to take all the snaps this year? Or, at what point do you start to think about giving the next quarterback some snaps?
A I don't worry about that. Max Shortell has played, and we have two young freshmen who practice all the time. At Southern Illinois, we started a true freshman and won a lot of football games. So I think we start developing the quarterbacks the day they walk in. Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson got started pretty good in the spring, so I don't worry about that. I worry about keeping people healthy. If MarQueis stays healthy, that's a great thing. If he stays healthy, we'll win a lot of games.
Q How realistic is a six-win season?
A Our goals are higher than that. When you go into a season, you shoot for the highest, and see what happens. What we need to do is the day-by-day things. They've done all those things, and now we need to take steps forward. Going in, we feel like we can win every game. If you don't feel that way, you shouldn't be here. Now, do we know we have some shortcomings? Yeah. Do we have all of them fixed? Probably not. But that's what you call coaching. We've got to work around our shortcomings and find a way to build on our strengths. I think our season comes down to, can we stay healthy -- we still don't have all the depth we need -- and can we stay in games until the fourth quarter? If we stay in games, I think we can win them.
Q Do you ever allow yourself to daydream about making this team a winner, what that would be like?
A You know, I try to stay in the moment. But every once in a while, I think about what we've done, where we've been, and you think about seeing some people smile. Making them feel good about the program. I probably daydream more about the people in the state of Minnesota, making them feel good, because they're so passionate. I do want that for our people.
Q People ask all the time about your health. Do you feel it is a nonissue now?
A Well, you can't ever say that it's a nonissue. You can't predict what will happen. But I know that I've worked very hard. I've lost 12 or 13 pounds, I walk every day, I've been to the Mayo Clinic and got a clean bill of health. I'm cancer-free. So I feel very good. I'm in good shape. I can't control everything, but I've done everything I can to beat this. I don't want to let our kids down, or our fans. I'm well-prepared, I think.
Q [Freshman receiver] Andre McDonald said you're the best ping-pong player he's ever seen. Are you really that good?
A Andre exaggerates. I just played a lot back when I was Andre's age.