This season marks the first time in Tracy Claeys' 21 years of college coaching that he will start the year as a head coach. He said he enjoyed being the team spokesman at Big Ten media days last weekend in Chicago.

"It was a pretty neat experience, my first time to be there," Claeys said. "You do a lot of things for about six hours the one day, but they keep you moving around. Every 15 minutes it seemed like you had something different to do, so the time went by pretty fast. But it's always a good chance to brag about our kids and let people know how much we're looking forward to the season."

The Gophers already have been pegged a last-place team in the Big Ten West in several publications, even though they don't have to face Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State this season. Claeys — much like former Gophers coach Jerry Kill — says he's unconcerned about any predictions.

"I don't have any control over what the writers write or say, or where they pick us, so I don't spend much time with that," he said. "I just feel like we have an awful lot of work into this thing over the last five years, and we feel like we have our best team coming back. We do have a returning quarterback [Mitch Leidner] who I'm extremely confident in.

"There's never a guarantee you're going to win every year — nobody wins every year — but I'll be really disappointed and our kids will be disappointed if we get down to the end of November and we don't have a chance to go to Indianapolis and play for the Big Ten championship. Hopefully we have a chance for that opportunity."

Ready for camp

The Gophers start camp Friday. Claeys said there will be significant changes in how the days are organized, based on conversations he had with a Gophers coach in a different sport.

"We're going to do some things different," Claeys said. "Coach [Hugh] McCutcheon in volleyball, I have a tremendous amount of respect for, and he has some interesting data on teaching and learning behaviors and how he has applied them to his practice. We are going to change up a few things in the way we practice and try to finish each practice in a live situation and challenge the kids at the end of practice each day. We've done that more in the middle of practice [in the past]."

Claeys said the main goal with pressing the team through the end of each practice is to test their ability under stress.

"Stay sharp while you're tired," he said. "It has been proven it's harder to learn things when you're tired and worn out, but you can expect kids to do things right that they've already learned and know how to handle it. I've had great conversations with [McCutcheon] this summer and got some ideas that I think can help us in our practice."

Claeys said he feels confident about the team's depth at every position except two.

"One is the offensive line, and I think we can come up with seven kids who can help us win and play well," he said. "But you know the injuries concern me there and how deep we'll be. We have some talented young kids and some redshirt freshmen, but it's awfully hard to play at this level with young kids in the offensive line.

"The second one is the secondary. We need to stay healthy in the secondary. It's about the same depth-wise; we have some talented young kids. If we can get by and stay healthy and let them grow at a little slower pace than having to throw them in the fire, then that's in our best interest. If we stay healthy at those two spots, then I feel good about our chances."

While the Gophers often have redshirted as many freshman as possible, Claeys said a few of them have a chance to make an impact this season.

"It all comes down to the strength and how well they adapt," he said. "[Linebackers] Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin both have the size and the strength that would allow them to play right away. [Defensive back] Antoine Winfield [Jr.] is another one who has the size and strength. I think we've got a couple other kids there. Kiondre Thomas from Arkansas is big enough and strong enough to play.

"So any of those kids that have the strength, now it's just a matter of how well they adapt to competition. That's something that in fall camp we have to get figured out and put them in those situations to see if they're ready to compete at this level."

Claeys said the team should be completely healthy to start camp.

"As far as I know, we'll meet with the training staff and get that all lined out, but I think everyone will be able to practice once we go on Friday afternoon," he said.

Jottings

• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked if he has seen a change in the personality of the offensive line after signing free-agent guard Alex Boone in the offseason. "Yeah, quite a bit," he said. "I think he has been good for our offensive line room. He has been vocal in a good way. I was actually just talking to [linebacker] Chad Greenway about how Boone was in the locker room, and he said, 'He's great. People respect him.' He has kind of changed the mentality of the offensive line room, him and Coach [Tony] Sparano, and that's a good thing."

•A recent NFL survey of team popularity in jersey sales ranked the Cowboys, Packers, Seahawks, Raiders and Patriots in the top five. The Vikings had only two players in the top 50 in NFL jersey sales, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson, who both ranked in the 40s.

• According to the Minnesota Daily, 22 Gophers baseball players played on various teams in the Northwoods summer league. The Daily also reports that seven Gophers are involved in the Da Beauty League, a summer hockey league that includes a number of NHL players.

• Former Gophers and Vikings assistant coach Tony Dungy, who went on to a storied career as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. If you want an indication of the impact he had on the careers of three current NFL coaches, the Steelers' Mike Tomlin, the Lions' Jim Caldwell and the Jets' Todd Bowles will discuss his influence on them at 3 p.m. Saturday on the NFL Network.

• One reason the Gophers are excited about their offense this season is the sophomore running back duo of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, two good friends out of Georgia. Smith rushed for 670 yards, the sixth-highest total for a Gophers freshman, while Brooks ran for 709, the fourth-highest total. … One key to their success will be the play of tackle Jonah Pirsig, who was the only Gophers offensive lineman to start all 13 games last season.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com