With Gophers practice starting this week, coach Jerry Kill talked about needing to get his team prepared for one of the toughest schedules in college football.

The preseason coaches poll came out Thursday. No. 1 was defending national champion Ohio State and No. 2 was Texas Christian, and the only team in the country playing both is Kill’s. The Gophers home opener is Sept. 3 against TCU.

Still Kill believes that his team, which features the best defensive unit he has ever had, can compete against anyone in the country.

“I’ll be honest with you, in my 32 years of coaching we have not, in my career, played a tougher schedule,” Kill said.

It’s not just the games against the Buckeyes and the Horned Frogs. “You go right down the schedule and Colorado State to Wisconsin to Nebraska to Iowa, all bowl teams. Our schedule is very, very difficult. Our kids know that. We haven’t made any bones about it, but that’s part of it. If we can come out of it, we will certainly be going some good places.”

The Gophers went into Fort Worth last year after starting the season 2-0 and lost to TCU 30-7. They controlled possession in the game, but the Horned Frogs forced five Gophers turnovers. TCU wasn’t ranked at the time but quickly raced up the standings, finishing the season 12-1 and ranked No. 3 in the polls following a Peach Bowl victory over Mississippi.

“The thing about TCU is they force you into turnovers because they’re so athletic,” Kill said. “We just didn’t, and I’m not taking anything away from TCU at all, but we just didn’t play very good. …

“Again, offense will be a big key in this year’s game, being able to move the ball, and as you said, don’t turn it over. Don’t give them anything. You can’t give TCU anything. I look forward to playing them at home. I think it’s a thing I’m excited about and I hope our fans are.”

The Gophers’ second game will be at Colorado State, which went 10-3 in 2014 and didn’t lose at home, a season that got Florida to hire Rams coach Jim McElwain. Colorado State replaced him with Mike Bobo, who had been an assistant at Georgia since 2001, including the past eight seasons as Bulldogs offensive coordinator.

“I don’t see them changing a lot,” he said. “They’ll change some, of course, but I still think they’ll do some similarity of what they did a year ago. [Former coach] Sonny Lubick, who is a guy that I have known for a long time, is still involved with that program. They’re going to be a team that is physical. …

“It’s a tough schedule and one we’re going to have to be very, very well prepared and very deep. It’s going to be a physical season, and we only have one bye week. We have a great challenge ahead of us, but that’s the way life is.”

Young players ready

One reason for Kill’s early optimism is that his freshman class has come in about as prepared as he has ever seen.

“They came in in a little better shape than I thought they would,” Kill said. “Our older kids have done a great job with them.”

Kill cited Quinn Oseland, a 6-6, 301-pound offensive lineman from Springfield, Ill., as someone who “has really looked good,” adding: “He’s big and can run. I knew he was athletic, but I didn’t know he was quite as athletic as he is. He’s a guy that stands out, certainly up front. Really our offensive linemen, it’s the best overall group as far as size, strength, quickness that we have brought in. They have definitely looked the part. …

“Then we have several secondary kids I have been impressed with, and several of them can run, which we needed. Overall there’s not a guy that you just go, ‘Boy, this kid should have worked harder.’ I think they followed, after signing, exactly what the strength program was and they’ve done really well. Some of them have done better than the upperclassmen as far as their work.” 

Getting healthy

Still, Kill knows that one big key will be the health of some upperclassmen who suffered major injuries last season.

Scott Epke is one that’s really important to us and he’s going through everything in the summer. Scott looks very good,” he said of the defensive lineman, who tore the anterior crucicate ligament in his right knee last year. “He has done a great job with rehab, and you know, that’s a critical piece for us up front. I don’t think there’s any question about that. [Linebacker] Nick Rallis has done everything that we’ve been doing. He gets sore some and I’m concerned about that. Whether he’ll be ready for fall camp I think is a question mark. His goal was certainly that. The kid works his tail end off, but he went through a pretty dramatic injury [a torn left ACL].

Jon Christenson is the best he has been since his injury [a broken left leg in 2013]. He has done a great job of leadership and he’ll be back full strength. Then, really, you know Jeff Borchardt is the kid that won’t be able to play and he was doing some good things in the spring but he had a tumor that was taken off his brain. He is doing well. He won’t be able to play this year, but will be able to continue his play the next year.”


• Justin Morneau spent almost a month in the Twin Cities awaiting the birth of his third child, and last week the former Twins first baseman reported back to the Colorado Rockies, taking batting practice. The 34-year-old is hopeful that the concussion that has sidelined him since May will heal and he will be able to resume his playing career. He is under contract for 2016. … Michael Cuddyer has missed some time with the Mets this season to injury, the latest to his left knee, landing him on the disabled list. But the former Twins star expects to play first base and right field when he returns, hopefully next weekend. He had been playing left, but the Mets traded for Yoenis Cespedes from Detroit on Friday.

• Twins President Dave St. Peter is confident the team will exceed 2 million fans after some smaller crowds earlier this year. The Twins announced crowds of at least 30,000 for each game of their current nine-game homestand before a crowd of 27,643 Friday.

• One high school football player the Gophers are recruiting hard is Antoine Winfield Jr., son of the former Vikings star. Winfield Jr. lives in The Woodlands, Texas, but the fact that he grew up in the Eden Prairie area while his dad was playing here could help. How good an athlete is the young Winfield? Recently the 5-10 corner was timed in a 4.27-second 40-yard dash while visiting Ohio State, where his dad played.

• The ability to recruit Gary Trent Jr., the Apple Valley basketball standout whose father played for the Timberwolves, is going to be a real test for Gophers coach Richard Pitino. Just about every top national program is after him. … Another son of a former NBA player’s son being recruited hard is Ishmael El-Amin of Hopkins, whose father, Khalid, starred at Minneapolis North before leading Connecticut to an NCAA title.