The Gophers football team hosts its spring game on Saturday and in several conversations I’ve had with coach Jerry Kill, it’s clear the head coach is pleased with the physical tone in practices this spring.
Granted, spring practice is completely different than regular season, but Kill believes his team is showing signs of becoming more physical on both sides of the ball. He thinks it’s a carryover from the Meineke Car Care Bowl, a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
“That’s who we want to be,” Kill said.
To be clear, Kill was disappointed in the loss and the mental mistakes late in the game that opened the door for Texas Tech to rally. But he was encouraged by how physical his team played, particularly in the running game.
“When we walked off the field, I turned to [an assistant] coach and said, ‘This is who we want to be,’” Kill said. “I said this is the first time since I’ve been at the University of Minnesota that I feel like we were physical.”
The Gophers displayed a power running game behind a healthy offensive line and tag-team duo of Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams. Those two running backs combined for 137 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 31 carries. In all, the Gophers rushed for 222 yards on 54 carries.
The Gophers dominated the line of scrimmage against a Texas Tech team that finished 74th nationally in rushing defense and played in a pass-happy conference.
“I think the big thing was, I felt like for the first time we had an identity and aggressive tone to us,” Kill said.
Kill probably wasn’t fond of some of the extra-curricular stuff that happened after plays. But his players also didn’t back down when Texas Tech became chippy and undisciplined. That’s a good sign.
One of my biggest frustrations with the Gophers in recent years is that they didn’t always fight back in tough times. They just let things snowball on them. But they showed some fight in that bowl game -- literally a few times -- which left Kill encouraged.
“We said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to take it anymore,’” Kill said. “That excites me.”
The coaching staff has shown players film of that game multiple times this spring to reinforce the physical style they covet. Now, they must prove that they can play that way consistently.
“You have to do it in the Big Ten,” Kill said. “For us to take steps forward, we have to play like that. As we teach kids, we have to go back to that game a lot and say, ‘Hey, I know we can do it.’”
Kill desperately wants an offense built around a power running game, and the coaching staff is excited about the possibilities of a backfield rotation of Kirkwood, Williams and incoming freshman Berkley Edwards as a change-of-pace threat.
That would reduce the number of carries for quarterback Philip Nelson, thus eliminating some of the pounding he takes. In terms of Nelson’s target number for carries, Kill said he’d like to “pick your spots,” rather that use Nelson as a featured ball carrier.
“We’ve been blessed -- and University of Minnesota has been blessed -- but you look through my whole record of coaching, clear back to DII, we’ve had great running backs,” he said. “We had them at Northern [Illinois], we had them at Southern. We’ve got to get back to having them. I think the bowl game gave some of those guys confidence.”