The dinner hour had passed. The film sessions were over. The Gophers’ team hotel was mostly quiet on the eve of the Penn State game, with some guests already heading to bed.
But in the dim light near the vacant hotel pool, linebacker Nick Rallis was busy working on pass rush moves. For Rallis, this session with assistant strength coach Dustin Perry, has become a Friday night ritual.
“We call it a primer,” Rallis said. “Just kind of get your central nervous system ready for the game.”
The Edina native also spends about four hours each day studying film.
“Yeah,” Rallis said, “I’m kind of insane with that stuff.”
In this Gophers senior class, Rallis actually fits right in. It’s a group of 13 players who’ve repeatedly drawn praise for their dedication. They’ll be honored before their final game Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, against Northwestern.
This senior class has logged 29 victories since the start of 2013, the most in a four-year span since the Gophers won 30 from 2003-2006.
“When they got here, everything wasn’t all rosy and going the right direction, and the culture had to change,” coach Tracy Claeys said.
Rallis, Mitch Leidner, Damarius Travis, Jack Lynn, Jonah Pirsig, Scott Ekpe and Yoshoub Timms are fifth-year seniors who arrived in the Class of 2012, when Jerry Kill’s staff was coming off its first season. Minnesota had gone 3-9 in back-to-back years.
The Class of 2013 brought three other current seniors who’ve been playing ever since they were true freshmen — Drew Wolitarsky, Jalen Myrick and Hank Ekpe. Three others who’ve been added to this senior class are defensive backs Ace Rogers, Alex Starks and Erick Amoako.
This won’t be a large senior send-off. Last year, for comparison, the Gophers honored 24 players on Senior Day. This year’s 13-member senior class is the fourth smallest in major college football, behind Kentucky (11), Penn State (12) and Baylor (12). But Claeys credits this year’s class for helping the program turning the corner.
“When they got here, nobody was going to class, and we didn’t practice very good,” Claeys said. “Had to beg kids to practice and practice hard, and we’ve gotten through all of that.”
This senior class also had to regroup after the Gophers went from back-to-back 8-5 seasons to 6-7 last year. Leidner said it started last winter, when the new seniors-to-be doled out offseason responsibilities.
“I think all of us understood that the senior leadership we didn’t think had been as great in the past, so we really wanted to take it to a new level,” the quarterback said.
These seniors still hold a meeting each week to discuss the tone they want to set at practice. Leidner said they go over specific scenarios that might happen and how they want to react.
“Look at the Nebraska game: Any time something didn’t go our way, nobody was blaming each other,” Leidner said. “It was all picking each other up constantly.”
It’s about “not panicking if something goes wrong,” Travis added. “We just always have each other’s back no matter what the situation is. Don’t get down on ourselves.”
If Leidner is the team’s primary offensive voice, Travis leads the defense. The Florida native has 66 tackles, two interceptions and is widely viewed as a pending NFL draft pick.
“He’s a professional, complete professional,” Claeys said of Travis. “Trust him with my life. I mean, he’s a good kid, been going to school, works with the younger kids and been involved in the community. He’s a great person.”
Now, after pouring so many hours into Gophers football, these players are getting ready to say goodbye to their home stadium.
“I don’t know if it’s hit me yet,” Rallis said. “It probably will on game day. I’m just kind of focusing on preparing for Northwestern because if you don’t go out with a win, you know, it’s not going to be a great memory.”
Either way, it won’t be the end. The Gophers finish the regular season at Wisconsin next week and will learn their bowl destination Dec. 4.
“We are definitely not finished yet,” Leidner said. “And I think everyone understands that.”