Jerry Kill is in the middle of another reclamation project. After bolstering programs at Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and other stops along the way, Kill has brought his turnaround tactics to the Twin Cities. He takes over a Minnesota program that went 3-9 last year and has suffered some roster attrition. Most project the Gophers to finish at the bottom of the Legends division this season.
Unlike his predecessor, Tim Brewster, Kill isn't one to make bold preseason predictions. He's trying to build a program "on concrete, not sand," and the process could take some time.
I checked in with the first-year Gophers coach Tuesday to get his thoughts on preseason prep.
What has been your top priority in camp?
Jerry Kill: The biggest thing is when you take over a new team, you go through spring ball, but they haven't been through two-a-day camp with you. They're not familiar with what you do and how you do things. So getting everybody into a routine and familiar with the way we approach things, it's been a challenge but the kids have handled it pretty well.
Do you feel like you're still starting over?
JK: It's a new coaching staff, and we haven't been through it. Until we go through a full year, people aren't going to understand what you expect or what you want. You can't get to know somebody in three or four months. It takes time, and trials and errors, so we are starting over. It is what it is. We've never been through two-a-day camp together, we've never been through the first game together, we've never been through a season together. Once you go through it for a year, you can get all the things figured out. That's just the way it is. And you hope you win some games along the way.
You've had quite a few open practices and scrimmages this month. What has the atmosphere been like?
JK: I remember asking Bobby Ross, back when I was coaching Saginaw Valley State and the Detroit Lions were having training camp and Coach Ross was in charge. They had the open practices. I asked him why he did that and he said because players will practice harder. I don't think there's any question about that. So we opened up our first two weeks, it's closed now, but we had 200 people at probably every practice at least. So it's a good atmosphere for the kids to practice. They don't want to be embarrassed when there's people around, so I thought it was a good deal.
You were pleased with MarQueis Gray coming out of the spring. How has he looked to you so far this camp?
JK: He's still going through the learning process, and he will for a while. He's never been in a game at quarterback. He has played some Wildcat or whatever, but he has never been a true quarterback in a game. There's learning going on every game, and it's certainly different from spring ball to two-a-day camp because we're getting closer to game day, and there's a lot more to do at that position. But he's working his tail end off to do something that's pretty darn near impossible, to go from a wide receiver to a quarterback.
He's worked hard at it, we're making progress. Will we be real complicated early in the year? We can't be. We've basically got four freshmen quarterbacks. So we'll have to simplify things. He's athletic enough to do some special things once we get him in the right position. He's what you look for in a quarterback and he's got the skill set to do it, but the other people around him have got to do a good job also.
How many young players do you anticipate playing, true freshmen and redshirt freshmen?
JK: Too many. It is what it is. We've got a situation where we've got one recruiting class that only has five players left. There's a reason things are open. We've got one senior running back [Duane Bennett] and four freshmen, whether they're redshirt or true freshmen. We've got one senior wide receiver [Da'Jon McKnight] and the rest are freshmen and a junior college player. Offensive line, we've got three seniors and the rest of them are freshmen and redshirt freshmen, a couple sophomores sprinkled in there. So it's a young football team.
Who are some of the young guys who have stood out to you so far?
JK: Lamonte Edwards at tailback has shown some great signs. He's a redshirt freshman. He's run pretty hard. Malcolm Moulton, a wide receiver transfer that's got three years left, from Fort Scott Junior College, he's done some good things. [Devin] Crawford-Tufts, a true freshman, has done some good things at receiver. All the offensive linemen are young, so they have to do some good things. David Cobb's done a nice job. He could be [a factor at running back], but we'll see. But he has had a good camp. Tommy Olson has done a good job, Foster Bush, a true freshman offensive lineman that we're probably going to need to do some things for us.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ben Perry has done some good things at defensive end. [Michael] Amaefula, a true freshman from Texas, is going to have to play some minutes for us at defensive end. We've got a lot of young players.
What does [Florida transfer] Brendan Beal bring to the mix at linebacker, a guy who hasn't played a game for a while?
JK: He's like a freshman. He didn't play last year, so he sat out a year and he's still learning what to do. When you're learning what to do, you're thinking all the time and you don't move as fast. So we've got to get things shut down and get him to where he's comfortable. But he's a great kid, he works hard, he gives everything he's got and that's all you can ask at the end of the day.
Where do you feel the defense is depth-wise?
JK: We don't have enough depth anywhere on our whole football team. We've got to create depth. We're repping a lot of people to teach them as much as we can. We've been repping two and three deep as much as we can because we know the Big Ten is a very good conference. We understand how physical it is, and we know injuries will happen. So I don't know if we've got enough depth. That's a big question mark for our football team because of the situation where we have so many players who aren't in the program.
How are the guys on defense taking to the scheme and what you want to do there?
JK: They're still learning what to do and trying to buy into what we want to do. When you have four offensive coordinators and two or three different defensive coordinators, and then you've got new people coming in, you can't just turn the light bulb on and say, 'We're great! We know everything we're doing.' It takes time, so on both sides of the ball, we're still telling what we want them to do. We may have a couple things happen before we figure it out. I don't know. I hope not.
Have you seen certain players develop in terms of leadership?
JK: Duane Bennett has been a great leader since I've been here on the offensive side of the ball. He's done some good things. Kim Royston all summer long, he's an older kid, 24 years old, a safety who has been through a lot. Those two kids probably stand out more as far as taking a leadership role as anybody has.
How has Kim looked on the field?
JK: Kim's a good football player. We need him healthy and he's played well and been pretty healthy. The game comes easy for him.
You've been in this position before, trying to turn things around with a program. Do you have an idea of what to expect when the games begin, or do you have the same curiosity as the rest of us?
JK: I don't feel like you ever know what to expect. I knew we were thin when I went to Southern Illinois, and I knew we had to not have any injuries when we went to Northern Illinois. We tried to keep the games as close at Northern Illinois as we could and tried to win in the fourth quarter. We were fortunate to win a couple we maybe shouldn't have in our first year. I don't know. That's why you play the game. I know we're short in some areas, but hopefully, we can teach them to play hard and get in the right spot and buy into what we're doing and get a break here or there, and we'll see what happens. You never know until you get on the field.
Again, we're trying to build a program on concrete, not sand, so we're going to try to do it the right way I've been doing it and the way our coaching staff's been doing it for a long time. Not everything's going to be perfect the first year. It's just not going to work that way. I've enjoyed our kids during camp. I've enjoyed working with them. I think they're giving us as much effort as they can give us. And I can live with that. We'll see what happens.