SPICER, MINN. – Much like his boss, Tracy Claeys knows how to work a crowd.
With Gophers coach Jerry Kill out of state for his youngest daughter's wedding, Claeys filled in Wednesday as the football team’s speaker on the first leg of the third annual Gopher Road Trip.
"Obviously we're excited about where we've been," said Claeys, the team's defensive coordinator and associate head coach. "Last year we accomplished some things that hadn't been done in over 40 years. At the same time, we all agree, we think we can do better.
"I know one thing: me personally, I'm not going to relax until that that Axe comes back."
This drew big cheers from the crowd of about 150 at Johnny O'Neil's Green Lake Social. The Gophers are riding an 11-game losing streak against Wisconsin and are on a mission to reclaim Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Claeys said another goal is to finish with a bowl game victory. The Gophers are 0-7 in bowls since defeating Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl.
"For the first time last year, we had a group of kids who competed their tail ends off for all four quarters," Claeys said. "Could we have played smarter? Yeah, we made some crucial mistakes defensively in the fourth quarter of some games that cost us. That's my responsibility. We've got to practice better and we've got to play better.
"Going into this year, defensively, we've got a lot of kids back. Offensively we'll continue to develop. Mitch [Leidner] had a great spring for us. Across the board, we'll have more players with [Big Ten experience], and I'll be disappointed if our results a the end of the year aren't better."
In a separate interview, I asked Claeys which defensive players helped their standing the most this spring.
"The biggest surprise that we had was Julian Huff at linebacker. Here's a kid out of high school, who came early. We threw him in there, and he wasn't intimidated one bit.
"I know on defense, that's the guy who jumped out at us, where he's going to be able to help us this year, whether on defense or at least special teams.
"Up front, Hank Ekpe had the best spring since he's been here, and I think graduating Mike [Amaefula], he sees an opportunity to start, and he's really taken advantage of that.
"And then [Adekunle Ayinde] in the secondary; I think has done his best job so far and put himself in position to where I think we can rely on him. Besides that we're pretty experienced. Charlie [Rogers] had a good spring, and this will help him to go through the summer.
"Jacob Huff really played well. He had some tough spots during the spring but in the spring game, he really played well. Sometimes that says something about kids, after you take all the coaches off the field, and you lay the ball down and play."