Big Ten: Devon Wright
How has the offseason gone for you guys so far?
Jerry Kill: Well, I think the bowl game, even though we lost, the kids played very hard and well. We got healthy, for one, before we went to the bowl, and we had a great month with our kids and a great experience. And coming into the offseason, I think there was a lot of confidence gained. All our kids' strength and testing numbers went up. I guess I can use Ra'Shede Hageman as an example, He benched 450 pounds, squatted well over 500 and cleaned 350, with a 38-inch vertical. So kids like that got a lot better.
We feel up front and on the defensive line, we've gotten stronger. I think we've added some depth to the defensive line, and secondary-wise, we played several freshmen in that game against Texas Tech. We've got the flexibility to play Derrick Wells at corner and safety. I think the biggest question mark we've got going in is, we lost five scholarship linebackers. It's like a year ago when we lost seven secondary players and kind of hit the jackpot in recruiting. Damien Wilson, a junior college transfer, has had a great spring, and I'm looking forward to seeing him on the field. The guys who need the reps this spring are James Manuel, Aaron Hill, Lamonte Edwards, and young men we redshirted named Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis. And then we've got four other kids coming when fall camp starts. Our secondary a year ago had a lot of questions and really played well. I think, this year, linebacker is where we need to step up on defense.
And then on offense, I feel we'll be a much better football team than we were a year ago because we get everybody back except for Brandon Green and Q [MarQueis Gray], really. So I think that unit will be much improved.
JK: Yeah, that's what we were at Northern Illinois. We could run the power at you, but then we were athletic enough to turn and run the zone read with the quarterback. Both [Chandler] Harnisch and [Jordan] Lynch, when we needed to throw it, we completed it. But we still made our living on running the football. It was the first time, in the bowl game, that we had the same offensive line that we had at the beginning of the seaon. We had so many people get experience there. But that's what we want to be -- a team that gives you a lot of different looks, shifting and motion and different personnel grouping. But you've still got to be able to run the football, and certainly in the Big Ten.
Speaking of that offensive line, after a lot of injuries there last year, how is the position looking this spring?
JK: Well, we've got a lot of depth, no question. Eddie Olson, he won't go through the spring, but he had a good year a year ago. If we can get his foot healed up and done right, it kind of works out. He'll continue to get stronger. We redshirted Jonah Pirsig, who's a 6-foot-8, 6-9, 320 pound tackle, Ben Lauer, who's 6-7 and probably 305, and Isaac Hayes, who is a 6-2, 300-pound offensive guard. So those kids, I'm anxious to see them in the spring.
We've got Zac Epping, Jon Christenson and Caleb Bak -- in the weight room, he benched 350, squatted 550, so he's gotten stronger. Josh Campion is a strong kid; he benches well over 400 pounds. So the same guys who when I first got here were getting pushed around have gotten stronger. And then we've added these young kids that have come in. Marek Lenkiewicz is up to 290 pounds, Tommy Olson is healthy again and Brian Bobek, who transferred from Ohio State and had great credentials when he went to Ohio State, he's another one who's very physically strong. Then there's Foster Bush and Joe Bjorklund. They're all young kids, but they've gotten physically stronger.
When we got here, I think we had about seven or eight offensive linemen. So we've built it through walk-ons and kind of did it the hard way. But I feel good about that position, along with our tight ends, quarterbacks and receivers. Our defense improved tremendously from one year to the next. For us to be competitive in the Big Ten -- which I think we can be -- our offense has to take the steps our defense did a year ago. And I think we can.
Philip Nelson finished the season for you at quarterback and had a nice bowl game, but you also have some talented young guys there. Is it his job to lose this spring or a more open competition?
JK: We took the redshirt off Philip last year, and he did some good things and had some things he struggled with, as you'd expect for a freshman. He did some great things in the bowl game. When we go into camp, somebody is going to have to go in there and beat him out. But the thing that's good about that is the competition.
Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler are great athletes who can play another position if needed, but they both want to play quarterback and they're very capable of giving someone a run for their money. I can tell you, our defense is very high on Leidner. Mitch is probably close to 6-5 and 230, and he is a 4.6, 4.65 guy [in the 40-yard dash]. And very strong. And then Streveler is quicker than that. He came in during the second semester, and I think he's the third-fastest guy on our team. When we had him in camp, he played receiver also.
So all three of those guys are great kids, students of the game, and the type of kids you want playing quarterback leadership-wise. We'll let it work out. Leidner and Streveler are the type of kids who would say, "Coach, if it helps the team if you move me, I'll do that." But in the spring we're going to let them compete and make sure we're solid at that position. If you look at last year, it was kind of a miracle we got to a bowl game, because we had three different quarterbacks and three different centers. Not many people can win doing that.
ESPN.com caught up with Kill to discuss the state of his program entering tonight's opener.
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.
"Coach?" they asked Limegrover, the Gophers' offensive coordinator and line coach.
"Yeah," he replied. "It's me."
Limegrover started losing weight in January and had dropped 40-50 pounds by the time spring ball ended. But the players didn't notice a change until they went several weeks without seeing him.
"They got a big kick out of that," he said.
As of Thursday morning, Limegrover had shed nearly 120 pounds from his frame -- "It's like 119.8," he reported -- and often draws double-takes when spotted on campus.
Part of his motivation for the weight loss came from how he felt during the 2011 season.
"I felt so run down didn't feel like I was at my best, and felt like that was unfair to the kids I was coaching and the team in general," he said. "I feel like a million bucks out there now, 10 times better than I did at any point the last couple years.
"Now I'm not saying it'll help us win some games, but it can't hurt."
While Limegrover has slimmed down considerably, his offense could be fattening up this fall.
Minnesota struggled offensively in 2011, the first season of the Jerry Kill era, finishing last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg), and 11th in passing offense (150.3 ypg). The Gophers failed to score 30 or more points in a game and had 17 points or fewer in half of their contests.
A big reason for the futility: no identity.
Year 2 at Minnesota promises to bring greater production, and Limegrover is encouraged by what he's seen in the first few practices of fall camp. The best signs come from the running backs, a mostly anonymous group in 2011 that loses Duane Bennett (639 rush yards).
Junior college transfer James Gillum, who turned heads this spring, continues to display excellent vision and the power to run between the tackles. Sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye provide speed threats on the edge, while Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb both are healthy and ready to contribute. All the backs have shown a greater grasp of the scheme and the versatility to help in multiple areas.
"Those kids have lifted the energy level of the offense," Limegrover said. "They've given us a spark. They're hitting holes and they're doing things on the perimeter. They're picking up their assignments in the pass game. It's really been a bright spot for us because that's an area I know a lot of people have questions."
The same holds true for the wide receivers. Minnesota loses Da'Jon McKnight, who accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions in 2011. No returning player had more than 15 catches a year ago.
Brandon Green, a fifth-year senior who Limegrover calls "Mr. Dependable," leads the group and likely will be quarterback MarQueis Gray's top target. Devin Crawford-Tufts has filled out a bit and "can still run like a deer," Limegrover said. Speedster Marcus Jones is back from a knee injury, and incoming freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison are already showing the ability to contribute right away. Tight end John Rabe should have a much bigger role in the passing game after recording two touchdown catches last fall.
"We're looking more like a Big Ten receiving crew and Big Ten running backs," Limegrover said. "We've worked to get our tight end position more involved. And especially in the O-line, we're a year bigger and more physical, even though we're still young."
About the only Gophers offensive player who doesn't spark skepticism is senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. He carried the unit for much of the 2011 season, rushing for 966 yards on a team-high 199 carries, and making strides as a passer.
Limegrover is thrilled with Gray's offseason, calling him a "papa bear" for Minnesota's younger players. But Limegrover knows the Gophers must give their signal-caller more help.
"It isn't like basketball where LeBron James, you just clear a side of the floor and let him do his thing," Limegrover said. "We've got to be able to have great support around him. The worst thing we could do for our offense and for this program and for MarQueis Gray is to sit back and go, 'Well, we're going to put it all on his shoulders and we’ll only go as far as he'll take us.' That would be lazy and shortsighted. Every day, we get a little bit closer to everybody feeling good about those other spots.
"That's by far our biggest goal, to get to where we don't have just one bullet in our gun."
Hammock, the Golden Gophers' running backs coach since 2007, will share coordinator duties with Jeff Horton, hired last month from the Detroit Lions. Minnesota also has a co-coordinator situation with its defense as Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee both share the title.
"This promotion is a reward for the tireless work that Thomas has done as both a coach and a recruiter," Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said in a statement. "He has done an outstanding job with our running backs and has been a huge asset to our staff. Thomas is one of the outstanding your coaches in America and I could not be more please to reward him with the title of co-offensive coordinator. He and Jeff [Horton] will do a great job coordinating our offense."
Hammock and Horton will look for better results from Minnesota's running game this fall. The Golden Gophers have ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons, and no back has truly emerged to take charge. Hammock has been one of Brewster's best recruiters, helping to land running backs Lamonte Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood and Devon Wright, among others, for the 2010 class.
Hightower came to Minnesota from the Houston Texans and will step down to pursue another coaching job. Brewster expects to find a replacement soon.
Recruits: 25 (20 high school seniors, four junior college players, one prep school player)
Top prospects: Jimmy Gjere might be the best offensive lineman from the state of Minnesota not named Seantrel Henderson. Running backs Lamonte Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood and Devon Wright should bolster the Big Ten's worst rushing attack.
Sleepers: Offensive lineman Johnathan Ragoo is a big body with some athleticism. Brewster also likes linebackers Dwayne Mitchell and Willie Tatum.
Needs met: Minnesota still hasn't found an answer at running back, and this class addresses the position with three players. The offensive line needs to be upgraded, and Gjere should help there.
Analysis: Minnesota's 2008 recruiting class generated national headlines, but Brewster believes this class is better top to bottom. The Gophers missed out on several big names, most notably Henderson, but they added depth along the offensive line and signed several skill players who can contribute early. It's imperative that Minnesota finds a capable running back this fall, and Edwards, Kirkwood or Wright could be the answer.
Scouts Inc. grade: C
What Tim Brewster said:
- "Jimmy Gjere is one of the top offensive linemen in the country. He's extremely athletic, and that's what we were really looking for in this class, length. We wanted taller, longer guys, athletic guys. He's a spectacular player."
- "Lamonte's exactly what we want there. He's got the size, he's a very explosive runner, physical runner. He's going to grow into an outstanding tailback. If Lamonte Edwards was in Texas or Florida, he'd have had 100 offers. As it was, he was a four-star kid who's probably the best-kept secret in the country because he committed to us so long ago."
- "In the offensive line, we wanted to go out and sign a group of guys who would be the foundation of our team as we move forward. This is a heck of a group of offensive linemen."
- Ohio State can take its first step toward a national title run next fall by winning the Rose Bowl, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Jim Cordle has done it all for the Buckeyes' offensive line, Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
- Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi faces a big decision about head coach Tim Brewster's future, Jim Souhan writes in the Star Tribune. The Gophers hope recruit Devon Wright can spark their dormant rushing attack, Marcus Fuller writes in the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
- In a candid interview with The Sporting News' Dave Curtis, former Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn weighs in on the team's struggles this fall.Vic Koenning will be introduced today as Illinois' defensive coordinator, Bob Asmussen writes in The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
- Iowa's unsuccessful trip to the Orange Bowl in 2003 changed the way head coach Kirk Ferentz conducts postseason preparation, Mike Hlas writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.
- Former Michigan cornerback Boubacar Cissoko still could return to the team, though he has some work left, Angelique Chengelis writes in The Detroit News.
- Junior college defensive back Andre Kates remains committed to Indiana, but he's looking around a bit, Dustin Dopirak writes in The (Bloomington) Herald-Times (subscription required).
- Connecticut should throw its hat in the Big Ten expansion ring, Jeff Jacobs writes in the Hartford Courant.