- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2012 college football season kicks off tonight, and Minnesota is the first Big Ten team in action as it visits UNLV. Tonight represents a fresh start for the Gophers and coach Jerry Kill, who had a rough first year in Minneapolis. The team started 1-6 and Kill had to be hospitalized after suffering a seizure on the sideline near the end of Minnesota's Week 2 loss to New Mexico State. The Gophers turned things around a bit with wins against rival Iowa and Illinois but finished 3-9 for the second consecutive season. There's more optimism these days in Dinkytown as Minnesota prepares for Year 2 under Kill, who boasts a strong track record of repairing programs. Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray leads a Gophers team many expect to be markedly improved.
ESPN.com caught up with Kill to discuss the state of his program entering tonight's opener.
What were your main objectives in camp, and where are you as far as achieving them?
Jerry Kill: Going into two-a-day camps, we needed to identify some of the new kids as early as we possibly could to see if they could help us as freshmen. Personnel issues are always important, certainly when you're turning around a program and making sure you get people in the right places. I felt like we did that. We wanted to make sure offensively, defensively and in the kicking game, we could do what our kids could learn, where they could play fast. We've done that. And then we wanted to make sure each practice was important, and that we accomplished something. To this point, our kids have done a real nice job. We've accomplished everything that we set out to do in camp. We need to go play to see where we're at.
Last year, you were pretty honest about the work you had in front of you. Is your team readier for the season this time around?
Kill: It's a different year, different team. And we're going through a transition. We're not like some of the other schools in the country. We're building a program. But I know that the returning players feel a lot more comfortable because they've had the same coaching staff for the first time in many, many years here. The continuity of our staff and the players that are returning, and then the new players have come in and adapted pretty well, I would say we feel more comfortable.
Everyone knows about MarQueis, but who else is going to make plays for you on offense this year?
Kill: From a receiver standpoint, we need Devin Tufts to have a great year, and he's had a very good camp. A young man who has come out of nowhere as a true freshman who has had a really big impact on what we do is Jamel Harbison. Marcus Jones, who is returning from an ACL injury, has had a good camp. Another true freshman is Andre McDonald, a young man who is a big-play guy, a guy who can go vertical and make plays. Those kids, Derrick Engel, we've got some length and speed that we maybe didn't have at that position. And then out of the backfield, with Donnell Kirkwood, James Gillum, K.J. Maye -- a true freshman who's a big play guy -- and Devon Wright, we haven't had that a year ago. We've added some speed and some playmaking ability on offense. That's something I was concerned about. We won't know how they operate and how they'll play until game day. We're young, and that's scary, but we're certainly more skillful than we were a year ago.
What units are you most curious to see in a game after working with them in the offseason?
Kill: Probably the whole team, but specific units, I think our secondary is very athletic and much better than it was a year ago. I'm excited to see how they play. I'm excited about [defensive tackle] Ra'Shede Hageman. There's no question he's going to play at the next level, and I think he's going to have a tremendous year. The young man is 6-5 and 315 and has a 38-inch vertical jump. He's a raw kid, but he's developed himself into a very, very good football player over the past 6-8 months. So I'm anxious to see Ra'Shede play. He could be a dominant force, not just in the Big Ten, but the country. He's a special player. They don't make them who look like that and run like that. And I'm excited seeing MarQueis play. I want to see how far he's come in a year. I think he's come a long way, but we'll see as we open up.
With Ra'Shede, the talent is there. Is it combining talent and technique and not just relying on his natural ability?
Kill: Well, that's what he's done. It all started against Illinois. He had a big game. Everybody has a way of growing up and maturing. He played tight end when he first got here, had kind of been moved around. He's found himself a home, he's settled in, he's accepted coaching very well. Ever since two-a-day camp started, he's been on a mission. He understands with a body like his and the way he runs, he's got a tremendous future ahead of him if he can develop the skills that it takes to play on the defensive line. He's done an outstanding job. He's a totally different player than he was a year ago.
How are you feeling, health-wise, entering this season?
Kill: Fantastic. I'm doing fantastic.
What do you expect out of UNLV?
Kill: I've coached against Bobby [Hauck]. He's in a process just like we are. He's basically two years ahead of us. Talking to him earlier in the year, he felt like this club was certainly going to be his best to this point in time. He felt like he had the pieces of the puzzle in the right place and was heading in the right direction. He has a young team and felt like this was going to be their year. Everywhere he's been, they play physical, they play hard-nosed, they don't turn the ball over. He's always got some good playmakers.
It's a late kickoff. Have you don't anything to prepare for that specifically?
Kill: It's like anything. We've been doing this a long time, this is my 30th year and we've played late games before. You go through the archives and you get your kids up in the morning, you have a walk-through and film and you keep them active during the day and get them ready, get them focused to play. Playing the first game, the most important thing is make sure they don't get too excited. I don't think there's any question they'll be ready to play. The way these young people are nowadays, it'll be 10 o'clock our time, and that's when they go out anyway. I'd like to think you get to play on TV, on opening night of college football, you'll find a way to get ready to go.