Visiting with Tracy Claeys, the new defensive coordinator for the Gophers football team, you learn about how much respect the Northern Illinois coaching staff had for quarterback MarQueis Gray long before Jerry Kill and company got the job here.

Looking back to Northern Illinois' preparation last fall to play the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium, Claeys recalled that as Huskies coaches prepared the game plan, they were really concerned that Gray was going to play quarterback. They were happy that Gray took only two plays at quarterback, spending most of the game at wide receiver, where he caught eight passes from Adam Weber for 117 yards in a 34-23 Northern Illinois victory.

"We had seen him in Indianapolis [in high school] when we were at Southern Illinois, and I knew he could throw the ball and I knew he could run," said Claeys, who has worked for Kill since 1995 at Saginaw Valley State, following him to Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, all as defensive coordinator. "I didn't want to defend him. ... We had to defend him two plays [at quarterback] in the game. I think that was a good thing on our part to not have to see him."

Claeys is happy now to have Gray on his side. Kill has said Gray is his starting quarterback and won't play receiver.

"I like him a lot. I think to try to judge him throwing the ball at the end of spring and all that is unfair, because all those kids got hurt, from tight ends to receivers, and we didn't have our best people out there because of injuries," Claeys said. "Everybody who was at that spring game saw him pull the ball down and run. I'll tell you the defensive coach blew the whistle that we had him tackled, but I'm not sure we could have tackled him or not."

The Gophers defensive coordinator is impressed by how fast Gray has picked up the offense.

"My opinion with MarQueis is that going through all of spring ball -- we've done this now five jobs in a row -- and he's done as good or better a job than any of them at picking up the offense, and trying to do what's asked of him, than any place we were by the end of spring ball," Claeys said. "He's improved more [as a quarterback] than any place we've been and is more ready to go. Now he's got some more improvement to go and he'll tell you that and [Kill] will, but from the defensive side of the ball I think he's done a better job than any quarterback we've prepared in the spring."

One reason the Gophers are going to win more games than the experts believe is Gray. The only negative aspect with him is that he hasn't played quarterback for any length of time since his junior year in high school. If he stays healthy, Gophers fans will see some of the best scrambling they have ever seen by a QB.

A great human being A week ago, Kill got an e-mail reporting that a young man had been seriously injured in an accident on a farm and was in a Rochester hospital. The e-mail told Kill that the youngster, a junior high school football player and a big Gophers football fan, was really down and wondered if the coach would take time to call the person on the phone. But even with the football season approaching, Kill and his wife, Rebecca, drove to Rochester, where they spent time with the young fan and with many other patients on the same floor.

Then you have the case of a young man named Sam Sigelman, a local attorney and a former producer at KFAN-1130. Sigelman had surgery for kidney cancer and now has recovered. A University of Minnesota graduate, Sigelman e-mailed Kill earlier this year and asked about his experience with kidney cancer, which Kill was diagnosed with in 2005. The next thing Sigelman knew, he was meeting with Kill, and they struck up a great friendship. According to KSTP-1500, Kill served as the keynote speaker at a seminar for Sigelman and his co-workers April 28, and he said in the speech that the chance to have a relationship with Sigelman had done more for him than it did for Sigelman.

Kill has proved to be a great coach in his past jobs, but already in his short time here he has proven what a great person he is. These are just a couple of examples.

Good news for Twins Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, who had neck surgery in late June, has done well hitting and running the bases the past two days, so he is going to Norfolk, Va., to begin a rehabilitation assignment Friday with Class AAA Rochester.

"He feels good, he looks good," Twins General Manager Bill Smith said. "... I'll caution you, it's just a workout here, but he's hit, he's run the bases, he's taken ground balls, he's done throwing. He's basically doing all the activities. No one works harder than Justin Morneau, and no one has been more frustrated with the injuries than he's been."

Jottings • The Twins have until Aug. 15 to sign their first-round draft choice, North Carolina shortstop Levi Michael. Smith said the majority of first-round picks have not signed, with all those signings going down to the deadline.

Delmon Young has indicated he does not like to serve as the designated hitter, but the Twins left fielder is hitting an impressive .316 (24-for-79) in 20 career games as a DH with four home runs and 17 RBI.

• Gophers basketball forward Trevor Mbakwe made the 12-man final roster for Team USA for the World University Games, which begin Aug. 13 in China.

• With walk-ons, the Gophers football team will have 105 players on the practice field when it starts work Monday. ... Everett Withers, the first defensive coordinator here under Tim Brewster, has replaced the fired Butch Davis as the coach at North Carolina. Withers stayed with the Gophers only one year, 2007, before joining the Tar Heels.

• Former Vikings quarterback Brooks Bollinger will make his debut as the coach at Hill-Murray next week when practice opens. And as reported earlier, another local quarterback from the past, former Gopher Rickey Foggie, is the new coach at Park Center.

Nick O'Shea, the outstanding Gophers baseball player drafted in the 24th round by Cincinnati, has been used at catcher occasionally at Billings, the Reds' rookie ball affiliate. O'Shea played first base in college most of the time. "I started making the transition [to catcher] and caught a few games when I was needed," he said. He is hitting .299 with six home runs and 18 RBI through 23 games.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. •