- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Minnesota coach Jerry Kill guided the team to a bowl game during his second season in Minneapolis despite some depth and injury problems in 2012. What's in store for Year 3 of the Kill era? I recently caught up with him to get his outlook for the Gophers' spring practice, which opens today.
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.
You showed off a good power running game in that bowl game. Is that what we should expect from your offense going forward?
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.
And you feel like receiver is an area where you can make a big jump this spring?
JK: I do. I think in the bowl game we did some good things. We need Devin Crawford-Tufts, I think he was third or fourth in the Big Ten in the indoor 60 meters, we need his speed and for him to continue to improve like he played in the bowl game. I thought Derrick Engel did great things in the bowl game, and so did Isaac Fruechte, and those three kids were all rookies a year ago, learning what to do. We get Jamel Harbison back off knee surgery, and he'll go through part of spring. I think everybody would tell you coming out of two-a-day camp, he was our best receiver.
K.J. Maye, we've moved him from running back to inside receiver slot, and he's got great quickness and athletic ability. Devon Wright, we've moved him from tailback to wide receiver. He's another kid who is long and can run and we've got to get him on the field. He's too athletic to be standing over here by us. I know we'll be better than we were a year ago, just from experience alone.
Is the passing game the next big step you need to make as an offense?
JK: Well, we've got to execute better. We've got to be in third-and-fours and third-and-threes, not third-and-10s and third-and 12s. We had too many minus plays and most of that was execution. And I think that's why in the bowl game we were much more successful. We weren't in third and long all the time. And when we were, if we could throw and catch it, we win the game, and we didn't do that. When we were at Northern or Southern [Illinois], when we had really good teams, we knew when those quarterbacks threw it, we were going to complete it. The last couple of years here, we've been hoping instead of knowing it's going to get caught or get thrown there. We have to develop that in spring ball.
Having Hageman back was obviously big for the defensive line. What about replacing D.L. Wilhite as a pass rusher off the edge?
JK: We hope that Theiren Cockran, who's a long kid, 6-6 and about 245, has that ability to do that. Michael Amaefula, Ben Perry and Alex Keith all played last year for us. Probably the sleeper in the bunch is a true freshman, Hendrick Epke, who's the brother of Scott Epke. He is a very, very athletic kid. He's put on about 25 pounds since he's been here, and he's got a chance to be really special. So he's a freshman that may not be redshirted and a guy who may come off the edge. And then inside, we've got Cameron Botticelli, Scott Epke and a kid we redshirted named Yoshoub Timms who's very athletic. And Jordan Hinojosa is a junior college player we recruited. So I think we've got some depth we haven't had in the past.
JK: We feel good about our secondary, really. I think that's again a strength. Brock Vereen had a tremendous year at safety. I think his future is ahead of him. Antonio Johnson, played in the bowl game as a true freshmen and had a hell of a game. Cedric Thompson and Damarius Travis played well in the bowl game, and that gives us flexibility to move Derrick back to corner. However, Jeremy Baltazar, Briean Boddy and Martez Shabazz all played for us last year against some teams that threw the ball. Then we have a sophomore named Eric Murray who may be more talented than all of them. So I think our corners and safeties, as well as we played at those positions last year, that we can continue to get better in the secondary. I really do.
Finally, how much do you think the stability of your staff -- every coach is back for a third straight year -- helps you as you go into the spring?
JK: They've never had it here at Minnesota. MarQueis had six coaches, so that gives you a little bit of an example. This is the most stable it's been, and I think that's good. We're fortunate in that each year we've had somebody come after a guy or two on our staff and we held on to them. We had NC State come after our recruiting coordinator, and we were able to keep coach [Billy] Glasscock. That stability certainly helps you when you're trying to turn programs around. This is going to be the third straight year we go through the spring and these kids have heard the same thing. That helps you get better.