Tracy Claeys met individually with his offensive linemen over the winter to outline his expectations in rather blunt terms.

They needed to become stronger, more physical and meaner on the field.

Now get to work.

“He kind of laid it out on the table,” right tackle Jonah Pirsig said.

Disappointing would be a polite way to describe the Gophers offensive line last season. As a whole, the line struggled against brute strength, and internal frustration stemmed from a belief that the linemen were simply too nice. They lacked an element of nasty in their attitude.

Claeys set forth to change that. He started by hiring Bart Miller, a 31-year-old taskmaster, to whip them into shape.

Miller pulled no punches in his first meeting with his group. He told them that the culture was going to change and that the process would be a kick in the pants.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Miller said. “If you can’t take it, there’s no negotiation. You’re out, next guy in. We’ll find somebody that will.”

And here’s a bucket of nails to chew on. Grrrrr!

That wake-up call was both piercing and necessary. A power running game built on the shoulders of tough, ornery linemen should be the hallmark of Minnesota football. That needs to be a fundamental mentality.

Recent examples that come to mind are Greg Eslinger, Mark Setterstrom and Tony Brinkhaus. Nice guys in person, excellent ambassadors for the university, take-no-guff competitors on the field.

Zac Epping played with a mean streak that earned him the nickname “Dirtbag.” The Gophers need more dirtbags.

“We’re looking for guys that are the meanest, toughest, nastiest guys out there,” Miller said of his recruiting philosophy.

The transformation started in the weight room. Linemen were assigned their own strength coach with a plan designed to increase their mass and strength. Pirsig said linemen basically doubled their typical number of offseason lift sessions.

Miller also purchased a new blocking sled that simulates one-on-one blocking against a defensive lineman. That allowed them to do more legitimate on-field work than in previous summers.

“They’d go from out on the field to the weight room to back out on the field to back in the weight room,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said.

Miller wanted their workouts to be hellacious. He’s not fond of shortcuts or excuses.

To a man, the linemen look different physically, but this is not the first time football players have said they worked harder than ever before.

Let’s see if they play differently. That will be the truest measure.

“If we’re not trying to put our guy on his back, it’s not good enough,” Pirsig said.

Miller has a pet phrase in his meeting room: The mountain doesn’t care.

As in, if you’re climbing a mountain and you’re tired and sore and battered bloody, the mountain shows no sympathy.

“It wants to kill you,” Miller said.

Miller, of course, is not the first football coach to use metaphors and brash talk as motivational tools. Happens all the time. We’ve heard it here before, too.

Miller has a track record, though. He coached the Wisconsin offensive line for two seasons, which looks impressive on any résumé.

Several former Gophers offensive linemen who have met Miller say they are struck by his aptitude for teaching the position as much as his fiery disposition.

He’s not just all bark. Now he hopes his linemen bite. Maybe even literally.

Football coaches instruct players to play to the whistle. Some suggest playing to the echo of the whistle. In an effort to breed attitude, Miller says he will understand if one of his guys occasionally plays through the whistle.

“Obviously you have to be smart,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt your team. But we are not backing down from anybody.”

Players have different personalities, and not every guy is wired to breathe fire. Ever read the children’s book about Ferdinand the Bull? Some people have a yacht-rock temperament.

Harrumph. Miller doesn’t do laid-back.

“You’ve got to be able to bring it,” he said. “If that isn’t who you are, then you better find a way to create that edge. Not everybody is a street fighter. We’re not recruiting that. But we do want guys that come out and have some scrap to them and play mean.”

Better that than Minnesota Nice.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com