Act II for Gophers: improve

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2012 - 1:55 PM

Jerry Kill's Gophers debut ended with a 3-9 record and momentum. In Year 2, he'll try to repeat a successful pattern.

When the Gophers defense, his defense, finally came together last November, finally played with the speed and intensity and especially the physicality that he had been looking for all season, when it embarrassed Illinois so badly that the bowl-bound Illini couldn't even cross midfield until they trailed by 27 points, well, Tracy Claeys' reacted in a surprising way to his moment of triumph.

Good, the Gophers defensive coordinator recalls thinking. Glad it's over.

Wait, that's it? Didn't he wish the season could last another few games, that he could savor the accomplishment of that 27-7 victory and try to inflict that same swarming fury on another victim or two?

"Aw, hell no. I wanted to get back to work," Claeys said of that 3-9 season. "You're happy for the kids, especially the seniors. But we saw how much work we had left to do, recruiting, teaching, [working in the] weight room, and you just want to get going. Now you know what we need to do to make Year Two better."

And Year 2 always is better in Jerry Kill's world.

The Gophers begin their second season with Kill and his coaching staff in charge tonight in Las Vegas, and in many ways, it's a typical opener for this program. There is a certain amount of optimism around the Twin Cities, a you-never-know feeling that maybe the Gophers' luck has changed. And there's the usual number of reasons to doubt, the skeptics who say there's not enough talent, not enough experience, not enough luck in the world to make Minnesota a member of the Big Ten's middle class, much less the elite.

But it's Year 2, too, and the Gophers are banking on a trend: In Kill's four previous head-coaching stops, his teams always have shown evident, even substantial, progress once he learns his way around. And it's not, his staff says, a coincidence.

"The thing about Year 2 is, we've always been very realistic about what we'll be able to use as our strengths and what needs to change, even about ourselves and how we coach," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "You don't come in and say, this is how we do it, period. We say, what works well here? What can we build upon, not just for one year but for the program?"

More talent, depth

This year's team features a quarterback with renewed confidence and evident improvement. MarQueis Gray said he learned so much from 2011, when he closed the season with his best game yet, he is a different quarterback than the semi-novice who completed only half of his passes a year ago.

It also has a deep, experienced offensive line, and a revamped secondary that has Kill excited.

"Probably the thing that stands out with us defensively is our speed," said the coach, who moved some of his best young cornerbacks to safety in order to add that quickness. "Our speed on defense is better and our physical size is better."

And it's a much closer, more motivated team.

"I feel a lot more chemistry, a lot more calmness around the program. We're a bigger family," Gray said. "Everyone just letting loose and interacting with each other outside their own race and background -- that's something we haven't had here since I've been here."

Added Limegrover: "Our offense and defense are interacting more. There's a real feeling of, we all have the same 'M' on our helmet. Even the coaches were guilty of [not feeling that] last year. I didn't know any of the defensive kids. I've made it a point, all fall camp, I say hello to those kids and give them encouragement. They see that, and they see we're a real team now."

They found similar second-year advantages at Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, where Kill's teams went a combined 18-27 in his first year at each school, and 24-22 in his second.

It's that knowledge, that track record, that made last year's 3-9 season bearable, Limegrover said. They didn't enjoy being upset by North Dakota State, or embarrassed by Michigan, or shellacked by Wisconsin. But just as the Gophers' young offensive linemen now benefit from being forced into action prematurely by a rash of injuries last fall, the people in charge of the team got an education about what does and doesn't work, too. And that, Limegrover hopes, has a payoff, too.

"You have to have a year like last year. You've got to learn the good and the bad of the kids and the program and the facilities and the auxiliary staff, because all of those things are necessary to have success," Limegrover said. "That doesn't happen right away. Last year was a necessary evil to get us going in the right direction."

Fans patient, so far

Gophers fans seem willing to endure the evil and accept the necessary. Though ticket sales have been slow, the marketing department has noticed a sanguine spirit among Minnesota alums. Jerry Kill might be the most popular 3-9 coach in the country, for the counterintuitive reason that he doesn't promise Buckeye-like success.

"There is a renewed enthusiasm among the boosters. There is a buzz that you haven't felt around the program since the fast start" in 2008, when the Gophers won seven of their first eight games before losing their final five, said Dan Domagala, a Goalline Club member who helped brainstorm the university's advertising campaign. "He doesn't say we're going to win every game and go to the Rose Bowl. But he gives you the feeling that he has a plan, that he knows how to implement it, and that it works."

It needs to about now, especially in the sort of games that are scheduled with certain victory in mind. As much buzz as the hardcore fans may feel, the wait-and-see majority in Minnesota will tune out in a hurry if the Gophers don't handle UNLV tonight, or are upset by New Hampshire nine days later. The Gophers had similar optimism in 2010 after a good-not-great season-opening victory at Middle Tennessee State, then faced an outpouring of scorn when they followed up with convincing losses to South Dakota and, coincidentally, Kill's Northern Illinois team. Only seven games into that season, the atmosphere had grown so bad, coach Tim Brewster was replaced.

Kill isn't in that situation, but he realizes that pressure rises incrementally.

"We're building a program, and this is our second year with one recruiting class, and so you know, we're trying to take the next step forward," he said. "I've compared it a lot to Southern Illinois, being there the first year and where we're at. And right now, we've got some good kids that have been a joy to work with. They've worked hard. They've done what we've asked them to do."

All but one thing: Win. Maybe Year 2 will be different.

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