U football players react, vow no distraction after Barker's exit

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 21, 2012 - 7:57 AM

A.J. Barker's dispute with coach Jerry Kill could be a distraction, but not for these Gophers.

A.J. Barker is gone but not forgotten. For some teams, that might be a problem.

The danger, as veteran Gophers know, is that preparations get swallowed up by the headlines, that Twitter feeds become more enticing than the game plan. That you become so occupied with the latest gossip, you find yourself standing on the field Saturday without a real grasp of what you're supposed to be doing.

"As a team, distractions can really bring you down," linebacker Mike Rallis said Tuesday. "They happen. So you've got to train yourself -- when you're on the field, you just focus on what you're doing."

The Gophers are well-trained at that task, Rallis said. And for that, they can thank Tim Brewster, sort of.

"We've dealt with stuff like this before," the senior linebacker said. "I mean, our coach [Brewster] was fired in the middle of the season [in 2010]. I think guys will do a great job this week."

Jerry Kill hopes so. He reiterated Tuesday that "I feel bad, I really do" about his leading receiver's decision to quit the team and publicly denounce the coach, but "we're moving forward. All those seniors, they want to concentrate on playing football and concentrating on the guys who are here."

The players were mostly shocked by Barker's departure.

"I didn't see it coming, to be honest," freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who connected with Barker on three touchdown passes.

Added MarQueis Gray, "I had no idea. We were just in the locker room the week before, talking. He always came to meetings."

But once he left the team and published a 4,000-word censure of the coach, the story received national attention, almost guaranteeing that it would be a distraction, at least for a day or two.

"It's just something that's going to affect us all," Gray said

Some players made sure that Kill knew they supported him, Rallis said.

"We know what Coach Kill stands for. He's an easy guy to play for. We know he's going to give everything he's got for us, so it's pretty easy to give everything you've got for him," said the Edina linebacker, who will play his final home game Saturday.

"He's definitely stayed the same. It's all about hard work, it's all about discipline for him. That's something we had lacked in the past, discipline."

Kill has instilled it, Gray said, in part by enforcing standards, and making it clear when they're not met. Gray said he has been the target of a few blistering lectures from Kill, too, but just considers it part of football.

"If you're doing something that's not going to benefit yourself or the team, any coach is going to let you know about it," Gray said. "It's how you handle it [that matters]. You've got to be prepared for it, you've got to be strong-hearted about it."

The Gophers will need to be strong-legged against Michigan State, too, because their passing game has not been the same since Barker, who had a team-high 30 catches, 577 yards and seven touchdowns, was injured Oct. 27.

"That's what's unfortunate," said Nelson, who has thrown only one touchdown pass since Barker's injury, and none in the past 11 quarters. "But at the same time, we've got plenty of other guys who can step up and make plays."

Now Nelson and Minnesota must face a Michigan State defense that has allowed the fewest touchdown passes -- just 10 -- of any Big Ten team.

"[Barker] was one of our best guys," Gray said. "He was able to stretch the field and make plays for us, and that's just one of the jobs we're going to have to have someone fill up."

What happened to cost the Gophers that receiver, "that's between Coach Kill and A.J.," Gray added. "But I wish A.J. the best."

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