NCF Nation: Tracy Claeys

We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark
If Minnesota continues to ascend, its coaches will start bringing in more recruits who resemble Ra'Shede Hageman.

Until then, the staff will continue to find prospects who resemble Theiren Cockran -- and then go to work.

"We're in the department of development," Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said.

As Minnesota says goodbye to Hageman, a freakish defensive tackle who achieved his prodigious potential in his final college season, it turns to Cockran, the latest developmental discovery for the Gophers' coaches. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Nebraska's Randy Gregory are the launching points for any discussion of Big Ten defensive ends entering the 2014 season. Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence inserted themselves into the conversation with impressive sack totals last season.

[+] EnlargeTheiren Cockran
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaDefensive end Theiren Cockran will command a lot more attention from Minnesota's opponents in 2014.
But Cockran belongs as well, even if many around the league haven't heard of the Minnesota junior. He led the Big Ten in forced fumbles per game (four in 13 contests) and finished third in the league in sacks per game (7.5) and 10th in tackles for loss (10). Cockran had three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in league games.

"His development is coming along as we thought it would," Phelps said. "We knew it wasn't going to be in Year 1. Year 2 was a learning experience for him, and he's been able to become a better football player because of that."

Opinions differ on how much Cockran weighed when he made traveled from Homestead, Fla., to Minneapolis. Cockran says he was around 215 pounds, but Phelps admits, "That might be stretching it a little bit."

Minnesota listed the 6-foot-6 Cockran at 210 pounds in its announcement of the 2010 recruiting class. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Cockran was only about 190 pounds when the staff, then at Northern Illinois, first started recruiting him.

"We thought, hey, that's a kid we might have a chance to [sign]," Claeys recalled, "because he won't have the size that some of the big boys are looking for. Some of those you hit on. Some don't get big enough to help you and some do."

Despite Cockran's size, the Minnesota coaches always pegged him as a defensive end, even in the Big Ten. They rarely shy away from lighter ends, especially if they have superior speed to rush the passer.

Cockran had both speed and length, thanks to a wingspan of 6 feet, 9.5 inches, which helps keep offensive tackles away. But he needed to get bigger.

"I didn't want to rush it because I wanted to be able to keep my speed," Cockran said. "After a while, I just had the weight come to me naturally through the weight training and things like that, eating healthy and trying to stay healthy."

He now weighs about 250 pounds. Phelps would like to see him around 255 when the season kicks off, and Cockran's long-term target weight is between 260-265 pounds.

Cockran knew he didn't come in as a finished product. He also knew what can happen with the right development. Minnesota coaches often talk about Larry English, a defensive end who added about 30 pounds during his time at Northern Illinois, won consecutive MAC defensive player of the year awards and was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.

"I've definitely watched him on film," said Cockran, who redshirted in 2011 and appeared in all 13 games as a reserve in 2012, recording six tackles and a sack. "He didn't take any plays off. He chased plays down from the back side; he chased plays down on the field. That's what made him a great player."

Cockran also benefited from being around Hageman, a former high school tight end and basketball star who used his length, athleticism and strength at defensive tackle, a spot typically reserved for boxier players. Hageman was one of the first players Cockran met after arriving at Minnesota.

"I was wondering to myself, 'Who is this guy?'" Cockran recalled. "Ever since, I watched him. He plays with aggression. He loves the game. He showed me how to be physical, how to train in the offseason, how to work hard in the weight room.

"I took a lot from him."

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota defensive standout Ra'Shede Hageman has been a mentor to Theiren Cockran the last three years.
Hageman led off every opponent's scouting report. His size helped him knock down eight passes, second-most on the team, and he led the Gophers with 13 tackles for loss.

Without Hageman commanding double-teams in the middle, Cockran figures to get more attention this fall.

"He opened some people's eyes a little bit around the conference," Phelps said. "With Ra'Shede's departure, who might be the next big threat? T.C. might be that guy, but he's got to continue to be that threat off the edge of a guy who can beat you with speed and power."

Cockran had some contact with the University of South Florida during the recruiting process, but few in-state schools showed much interest. It didn't bother him, as he wanted to leave Florida and experience "something new."

After Jerry Kill moved from Northern Illinois to Minnesota, Cockran visited campus just before signing day.

A late January trip to Minneapolis might not be an ideal recruiting tool, especially for a player from sun-splashed Florida. But for Cockran, it worked.

"It was love at first sight," he said. "Compared to places I've been, people here in Minnesota are very nice, very welcoming. They have great attitudes here. They welcome you with open arms."

Cockran will be a fan favorite this fall if he builds on his strong sophomore season. The skinny recruit from Florida is now a fourth-year junior who boasts a unique mix of height, length, speed and power.

He also knows what it takes to be great after being around Hageman and studying defensive ends such as English and Aldon Smith, the long-armed San Francisco 49ers star who Cockran tries to mimic in games.

"He's really on a true timeline," Claeys said, "in developing as a player."
Tracy Claeys served as acting head coach when Minnesota went on its historic four-game winning streak last season. That brought Claeys plenty of national acclaim and recognition, including some calls for him to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.

Mostly, though, it made him squirm.

"I felt very uncomfortable about all that," he told ESPN.com.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltTracy Claeys led the Gophers to a 4-3 record last season in Jerry Kill's absence.
That's because Claeys views himself as simply a piece of a larger team effort. When Jerry Kill needed to take some time away from the Gophers to deal with his epilepsy, Claeys did his part by filling in. He didn't think he deserved any more credit than the rest of the staff or the players when the team put together its first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years.

So now Claeys is perfectly happy sliding back into his familiar role as defensive coordinator this spring.

"I'm looking forward to kind of hiding again," he said. "Getting back to working with the kids and just coaching ball."

Claeys could have parlayed his tenure as interim leader -- he was officially 4-3 in place of Kill, who remained very active during much of that time -- into a head-coaching gig elsewhere. A few schools contacted him this offseason to gauge his interest, but Claeys said he declined to even interview for another job.

Instead, he's content to remain with Kill. This will be their 20th season together, beginning in 1995 when Claeys was Kill's defensive line coach at Saginaw State and continuing as he served as defensive coordinator at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.

Claeys is one of several assistants who have worked for Kill for at least a decade. Kill made sure they were rewarded when he signed his recent contract extension, and Minnesota guaranteed that its staff salary pool would rank among the top six in the Big Ten. Claeys made just under $350,000 last year in base pay, plus an extra $13,000 per week while he was interim coach. He could soon be earning more than he would have made as a head coach at a MAC-level school.

Money, however, isn't the main consideration for the 45-year-old Kansan. He likes working for Kill and said his goal has never been to become a head coach. A few years ago, Claeys had a conversation about career arcs with Virginia Tech's Bud Foster, who has worked as an assistant under Frank Beamer since 1987.

"When you can go to work every day and like the people you work with and you know what's expected of you, the grass isn't always greener," Claeys said. "There's nothing wrong with staying where you're at and being successful, and Bud reaffirmed some of those things in our conversation."

Any small group of people -- whether it’s a rock band or a married couple -- will have its disagreements and difficulties while working and/or living in close quarters over a long period of time, especially in a high-stress environment like sports. Claeys said that's no different with the tight-knit Gophers staff.

"We have meetings, and some of them get a little heated," he said. "But everybody knows that when the meeting is over, the decision has to be what's best for the football team.

"The bottom line is, coach is a very caring person. We feel like a reason we've been able to build programs and have success is the consistency of our staff."

Claeys said Kill had often consulted with him on the headset about what to do in situations like fourth-down plays. So once he had full play-calling responsibilities last season in Kill's absence, he felt prepared and was confident the entire staff was on the same page.

Claeys is glad that Kill is now back handling media obligations and boosters. He can focus on working with the defense this spring and figuring out ways to replace starters like Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen. Maybe the right head coaching opportunity will come along someday, but Claeys won't be angling for it.

"As long as I'm having fun and am wanted, I'll stick around," he said. "I've told the Kill-er, whenever you want to make a change, come in and tell me, and when that time comes, I'll go back and home and tend bar."

It might be another 20 years before that happens.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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Storylines to watch this week in the Big Ten:

1. The long October is over. Has it really been five weeks since Ohio State and Wisconsin played? In some ways, it feels like 10. The Big Ten's October schedule was downright scary -- and not in a Happy Halloween kind of way. Well, the league slate turns interesting again this week as No. 21 Michigan visits No. 22 Michigan State and No. 24 Wisconsin visits resurgent Iowa. Even Minnesota's visit to Indiana holds some intrigue. So long to mismatches like Ohio State-Purdue. That's this week, too? OK, they can't all look good.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford and Michigan State can all but run away with the Legends division with a win over Michigan on Saturday.
2. Michigan State might run away with the Legends division. We'll find out this week. If the Spartans beat Michigan and Northwestern snaps its four-game skid at Nebraska, MSU can book its tickets to Indy. With five straight wins, Michigan State is clearly playing the best football in the Legends. Other than the Spartans, only Minnesota has won consecutive games to enter November. And really, looking at Nebraska's schedule and the way it played last week, it's hard to consider the Huskers a contender at this stage.

3. Let's go bowling. Friday is Nov. 1, so it's OK to discuss bowl lineups. Taking a peak at the Big Ten, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Minnesota are bowl eligible. Wisconsin or Iowa will join the mix Saturday, as can Nebraska with a victory over Northwestern. As for the Wildcats, after going 0 for October, it will be getting late in their bid to get back to the postseason without a victory in Lincoln. Indiana has some serious work to do, and Illinois ... the Illini just need to win for the first time in 18 Big Ten games.

4. That's offensive. Five Big Ten teams rank among the top 16 nationally in scoring. Thirty-six times this year, a Big Ten team has scored 40 or more points -- already up from 27 times all of last season. This week, two of the league's best offensive units face stern tests. Notably, Michigan, which averages 42.4 points, faces a Michigan State defense that allows only 12.3 points, third nationally. Wisconsin, averaging 39.9, visits Iowa and its 12th-ranked scoring defense, giving up 18.1. What will give? Answer that, and you've got your story of the weekend.

5. Braxton Miller needs to do something for an encore. The Ohio State quarterback is playing the best football of his career after a super-efficient effort last week in the Buckeyes' stomping of Penn State. Miller accounted for 320 yards and five touchdowns on only 35 total-offense attempts in less than three quarters. Up next, Purdue. You've got to wonder when the Boiler D caves, getting no help from the dismal Purdue offense. Maybe it's this week against an Ohio State juggernaut that's scoring 47.3 points per game.

6. Nebraska is searching for defensive answers. The Huskers expected growing pains with this defense, but they did not expect to be remain so unsettled in the 10th week of the season. Particularly at linebacker, Nebraska has developed little consistency. This week, apparently, freshmen Josh Banderas and Michael Rose return as starters. Coach Bo Pelini stripped the top-unit players of their Blackshirt practice jerseys. Juggling personnel won't work, though, if the Huskers can't develop a more physical presence.

7. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is moving toward a return. Kill, since taking a medical leave of absence following his fifth game-day seizure on Oct. 5, has resumed more coaching responsibilities over the past two weeks. He watched from the press box as the Gophers beat Northwestern, and coached a bit from the booth in Minnesota's upset win over Nebraska. On the road against Indiana on Saturday, Kill plans to do more of the coaching, though he continues to leave control of the sideline to Tracy Claeys, acting head coach and defensive coordinator.

8. Big test for Iowa. It's time to find out if the Hawkeyes are just a nice story, with their competitive play against Michigan State and Ohio State, followed by an overtime win over Northwestern, or if coach Kirk Ferentz's club is going to make some real noise this fall. Wisconsin presents a stiff challenge, but Iowa's solid rush defense and physical offensive play might make this a good matchup for the Hawkeyes. The schedule sets up well this month for Iowa to turn into perhaps the Big Ten's biggest surprise.

9. Penn State needs to find a fast defensive fix. The past two losses have turned ugly for the Nittany Lions, who surrendered more points to Ohio State last week than in any game since the 19th century. In its other October games, PSU allowed 84 points, splitting with Michigan and Indiana. All of it has led to scrutiny of defensive coordinator John Butler, defended adamantly this week by coach Bill O'Brien. The Nittany Lions get some relief Saturday against Illinois. Butler shifted a few bodies in the secondary, but he can only work with the talent on hand, and it's not great after key losses to graduation and low numbers because of probation.

10. Michigan is trying to shake its road woes. Even with that forgettable escape at Connecticut in September, Michigan remains just 6-8 away from the Big House under coach Brady Hoke. He's 19-0 at home, but that won't do any good on Saturday in East Lansing, where Michigan State sacked Michigan quarterbacks seven times in a 28-14 win two years ago. The Wolverines said this week they embrace the hostile environments at their rivals' stadiums. Numbers tell a different story.
Maybe the breakthrough was inevitable. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time a Jerry Kill-coached team took a significant step forward in Year 3.

Northern Illinois went from six wins to 10 in Kill's third season (2010). Southern Illinois went from four wins to 10 in Kill's third season in Carbondale (2003). Minnesota has only matched its 2012 wins total, but following back-to-back Big Ten victories, including last Saturday's historic triumph against Nebraska, there's a sense that more success lies ahead.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltActing coach Tracy Claeys has brought a calming effect to the Golden Gophers.
"Something about that third year," Minnesota defensive back Brock Vereen said.

Perhaps. But Kill's previous Year 3 makeovers didn't occur under circumstances that seemed as unusual and dire as the ones Minnesota faced three short weeks ago.

To recap:

  • Kill wasn't even with the program. After a seizure prevented him from attending Minnesota's Oct. 5 game at Michigan, he announced Oct. 10 that he would take a leave of absence to focus on epilepsy treatment. His return was unknown, and his longtime defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys would serve as acting coach.
  • Kill's health and future sparked debate around the program and nationally. How could a coach who had suffered five game-day seizures continue to lead a Big Ten program?
  • Minnesota had been outscored 65-20 in its first two Big Ten games. The Gophers were just 4-14 in league play under Kill, and had yet to win consecutive conference games.
  • The quarterback situation was messy, as neither Mitch Leidner nor Philip Nelson had performed consistently enough in league play. Minnesota had completed a Big Ten-low 59 passes for just 701 yards in the first six games.

Not exactly ingredients for a breakthrough. But that's exactly what has happened.

"I don't know how you explain it, really," Claeys said.

Start with Claeys himself. On a staff known for its continuity -- six assistants have been with Kill more than a decade -- Claeys has been there the longest, joining Kill at Saginaw Valley State in 1995.

Despite no head-coaching experience, Claeys knew the messages Kill wanted conveyed -- the two stayed in touch throughout Kill's time away -- but he delivered them in his own way.

"Coach Claeys is definitely calmer than Coach Kill," Nelson said. "That might be something that has been good for us at this time. We can't really get too emotional about anything that's going on right now."

Claeys admits he's "more level" than his fiery boss, and while he tried to keep the message as consistent as possible during Kill's absence, mimicking Kill in team meetings and game-day speeches wasn't the answer.

"The kids, they've been around me long enough," Claeys said. "If I go out there and do something else, they'll know I'm trying to be phony."

Minnesota's breakthrough also can be attributed to a mind-set. After a bye week, the Gophers went to Northwestern on Oct. 19 with confidence, as they had held the Wildcats offense in check the year before in Minneapolis.

Whether that confidence would last through the game remained to be seen. There had been some positive signs early in the season, including four decisive non-league wins, but the Gophers had a habit of letting the sideline sink when bad things happened on the field.

Claeys sensed a shift after Minnesota had the go-ahead touchdown at Northwestern called back on a bogus offensive pass interference penalty and then missed a field goal. The response: a pick-six two plays later.

"Northwestern was really the first time in a Big Ten game that we had some things go against us, and we bounced back and really played with a next-play mentality," Claeys said. "It doesn't promise anything, but I told the kids, 'If you do that and you play that way, most of the time in the fourth quarter, you'll have an opportunity to win.'

"It all seemed to come together at Northwestern and gave us a little boost."

Minnesota faced more adversity against Nebraska, which built a 10-0 lead in less than eight minutes. But Claeys sensed a shift after a Theiren Cockran sack stifled a Nebraska drive that had started in Gophers territory.

When Minnesota responded with a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, the confidence was back. The Gophers went on to beat Nebraska for the first time since 1960, as their fans flooded the field.

"Nobody panics anymore," Vereen said. "That first five or six minutes against Nebraska, they really couldn’t have gone any worse. But the atmosphere on the sideline was still very, very positive. There was never any doubt that we had a chance to win.

"In earlier years, it would have created some kind of domino effect. That goes to prove that we're a different team."

Like many coaches, Kill has had guest speakers address his team, including former football players who had their careers shortened. While the desired message came through -- that something you love can be taken away -- it didn't take full effect until the Gophers saw it happen to one of their own.

That first five or six minutes against Nebraska, they really couldn't have gone any worse. But the atmosphere on the sideline was still very, very positive. There was never any doubt that we had a chance to win.

Defensive back Brock Vereen on the Gopher's confidence.
"Coach Kill has been such a huge inspiration to all of us," Nelson said. "The players respect him a lot, and just being able to think about everything Coach Kill has gone through with the media and his health and everything like that, we just want to play for him.

"That really motivates everybody."

Kill and his wife, Rebecca, drove from Minneapolis to the Northwestern game, and Kill addressed the team at halftime and after the 20-17 win. He attended every practice the following week and took on a more active role in the coaches' booth against Nebraska. As Kill eases back toward full-time duty, he spends much of his time in the office calling recruits, Claeys said.

Kill will remain in the booth for this week's game at Indiana.

"We aren't going to screw it up right now," Kill said Tuesday. "I am a little superstitious, and we’re not going to change a whole lot."

Superstition has had nothing to do with the Gophers' surge. As Vereen puts it, the coaches have taught the players how to win.

They have no intention of stopping now.

"Our goal isn't to win six games and go to a bowl game," Nelson said. "We want to keep climbing the ladder."
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill appeared at the team's weekly news conference earlier Tuesday, but the most definitive status update he had wasn't about touchdown drives. Just drives.

"I'll be driving in February," Kill told the Minneapolis media.

Kill's seizures have prevented him from driving for years, but his goal of getting back behind the wheel in four months suggests he's encouraged by the progress made during his treatment for epilepsy. That's great news.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJerry Kill says all of the Gophers coaches have adjusted their roles and put egos aside.
The Gophers coach hasn't been on the sideline since Sept. 28, as he suffered a seizure a week later that prevented him from traveling to the team's game at Michigan. Kill has watched Minnesota's last two games from the coaches' booth, briefly addressing the team in the locker room and taking a more active role for last Saturday's game against Nebraska.

But his return to the sideline in a full-time head-coaching role is still to be determined. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will continue to serve as Minnesota's acting head coach. Kill once again plans to be in the coaches' booth for Saturday's game at Indiana. He sits between the offensive and defensive coaches in the booth and has access to both sides of the ball.

While not ideal, the system isn't hurting the Gophers, who have won back-to-back games, against Northwestern and Nebraska. Kill, who admits he's a bit superstitious, noted Tuesday, "We ain't gonna screw it up right now."

"I've kind of changed my role, what I needed to do, what everybody else needed to do," Kill said. "I have an extreme amount of trust in our staff, so we're just going to keep chipping along. I'm not going to worry about how we do it. Everybody worries about quarterbacks or everybody worries about coaches. The famous Al Davis said, 'Win, baby, win.' It doesn't matter how you do it, throw your egos to the side and work as a group.

"We've been doing that our whole careers."

Kill has sought advice from Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who took a leave of absence during the 2012 season to go through treatment for leukemia. Kill also mentioned on Tuesday that former longtime college coach Darrell Mudra, who led programs such as Arizona and Florida State and won a Division II national title at Eastern Illinois. Mudra coached games from the press box.

Whether Kill remains up top or returns to the field remains to be seen, but he was pretty definitive about one thing on Tuesday.

"I'll be driving in February," he said. "I'm not going to say, I hope and maybe and all that. I'm going to be driving a truck, too."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Play calls in football have unusual names. Coaches assign the words to ensure clarity in the language barked at the line of scrimmage, to offer a reminder of the formation or personnel.

Rarely does their strategy involve the opponent. This one did: Shift Husker Bob Y-Go.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called it for the first time on Saturday as the Gophers opened their second drive of the third quarter.

Ahead by four points, they sent 6-foot-6, 302-pound freshman Ben Lauer wide like a receiver. He settled into a stance at the snap, providing a distraction just long enough for tight end Drew Goodger to flash open and snag a pass from Philip Nelson that gained 21 yards.

Four plays later, Nelson scored. Minnesota went back to the 6-5, 265-pound Goodger twice more in the third quarter for a total of 68 yards -- more than double his receiving yardage total in six games this year prior to Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota took a page out of Nebraska's playbook to pull out the victory against the No. 24 Huskers.
Yes, Minnesota went big against 24th-ranked Nebraska in this 34-23 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers beat the Huskers at their own once-dominant game, punishing the Blackshirts in a way Nebraska has for 50 years trounced Minnesota.

The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, the most allowed by Nebraska in an already disappointing defensive season, and they did it by running downhill. Few big gains; just a consistent, powerful, deflating attack that stung Nebraska in ways the Huskers never imagined might happen at this venue.

You see, Minnesota has long served as a Nebraska doormat, like an out-of-conference version of Kansas or Iowa State before the Huskers' 2011 Big Ten entry. The victory on Saturday snapped a 16-game Nebraska winning streak in the series.

Minnesota last beat the Huskers in 1960. Nebraska won the past 12 games by an average of more than 40 points.

“Those games have no meaning to us,” said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ acting coach and defensive coordinator under Jerry Kill before the Minnesota coach took a medical leave to undergo treatment for his epileptic seizures.

Kill watched again on Saturday from the press box. He attended practice last week and spoke to the Gophers before the game. He came to the locker room again at halftime and told the other coaches to leave him with the players.

Claeys said he’s never spent time around a coach as competitive and caring as Kill, a rare mix.

“To have him around just means so much,” Claeys said. “We want to make sure we do him well.”

They sure did, storming back from a 10-0 deficit with 17 straight points in the first half, then burying the Huskers with a late defensive stand and a 34-yard touchdown march to ice it in the final minute.

Minnesota completed just eight passes. But it controlled the line of scrimmage. It forced two turnovers and committed none. It sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez four times.

A small army of Huskers limped off the field.

“We know who we are,” Minnesota running back David Cobb said, “and we know what we like to do.”

Cobb rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries. The junior from Killeen, Texas, talked to the Huskers in the recruiting process, he said, but Nebraska didn’t offer a scholarship.

“If you’re going to win Big Ten football games,” Claeys said, “you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.”

It stings for Nebraska, because that plan, for decades, epitomized Nebraska. So much of what happened on Saturday stings for the Huskers. The name of the jumbo formation, the method through which Minnesota inflicted misery.

And then there’s this: Limegrover said the Gophers pored over film of Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory over the Huskers last year in the Big Ten championship game. Some of Minnesota’s misdirection and sweep plays came straight from that film.

You mean, the Huskers haven’t fixed that yet?

“This game comes down to blocking and tackling,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “and we didn’t do that very well.”

Really, it’s about more than that for Nebraska. It’s about a painful loss on Saturday that harkened images of an era in this program that began a decade ago with defeats to programs like Kansas and Iowa State and ended with the 2007 hiring of Bo Pelini that was supposed to stop such madness.

Claeys said after the game that “there are bigger wins out there for us.”

Painful words again for Nebraska, but the coach is right. Minnesota, after consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time since 2010, is bowl eligible in October and plays Indiana and Penn State before a tough finishing stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The Gophers celebrated Saturday on the field with Minnesota students, but they're not ready to rest on this success.

“Whatever we’re doing right now is working,” sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson said, who replaced starter Mitch Leidner after three possessions.

It’s an odd mix, for sure, the quarterback rotation and uncertain coaching situation.

“On the inside, as a staff, we could see it getting better,” Claeys said. “But the kids needed something to give them belief.”

Saturday gave them belief.

Claeys said he was a freshman in high school when Nebraska visited Minnesota 30 years ago and won 84-13. Some old-timers at Minnesota bitterly remember that game. None of the current Gophers, of course, were alive.

The Huskers also played UCLA and Wyoming out of conference in 1983, winning by a total of 68 points -- opponents that combined to outscore Nebraska by 17 points this season.

It’s a new age at Nebraska.

At Minnesota, too, and for the better here.
Ra'Shede HagemanCourtesy of Eric HagemanRa'Shede bounced around foster homes before being adopted by Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman.

They keep coming back to that one word: structure. Those who best know Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman say it's the thing he needs most to reach his prodigious potential.

Which is hard to believe when you look at him.

Few Big Ten football players have bodies more structurally sound than Hageman's. Most defensive tackles are boxy in build; Hageman is long and lean at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. Muscles bulge from his No. 99 jersey, seemingly the only Gophers garment that can contain his freakish frame.

He runs a 4.9 in the 40 and has a vertical leap between 36-40 inches. He led his high school basketball team to a state title and showed off his blocking skills last week at Northwestern, knocking down three third-down passes to stifle drives (he also had an interception). At 7, Hageman did backflips on demand, making his adoptive father wonder what a kid who had never participated in organized athletics could do on a ball field.

Ra'shede Hageman
Courtesy of Eric Hageman As a basketball player and tight end in high school, Hageman showed off his immense athleticism.
"Talent's no issue," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com this summer. "He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it.

"Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak."

Hageman has had to catch up because he began so far behind. That he's even in the race is a testament to him and to the many around him who provided the structure he needed along the way.

Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father.

The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis. While in law school, Coyle had worked for an organization that dealt with hard-to-place adoption candidates, and she and Eric decided to adopt before having their own kids.

"We were young and idealistic," Eric Hageman recalled. "We adopted Ra’Shede and Xavier when they were 7 and 6 years old. We were ready to meet that kind of challenge. At least we thought we were."

They provided the foundation that Ra'Shede needed. Eric, noticing Ra'Shede's size and athletic ability, immediately introduced sports -- football, basketball, baseball, even golf -- where he quickly blossomed.

Ra'Shede calls Eric and Jill his "No. 1 supporters since Day 1," but his transition to living with them didn't come without challenges.

"You had the normal issues all parents deal with, and then you layer on top of that the adoption issue, and also the racial identity issue," Eric Hageman said. "It was not always easy for Ra'Shede in particular to be a young, black kid with white lawyers for parents. I remember many times when he was younger where we'd be walking somewhere and he'd walk ahead or behind us, just to show he was not identified with us or something."

Like any teenager, Ra'Shede rebelled. As Eric puts it, "He sought out a rougher crowd to establish his bona fides." When Giovan Jenkins first met Ra'Shede, he saw an incredibly gifted eighth grader who could play varsity football or basketball as soon as he set foot at Washburn High School.

But he also saw a boy in a man's body, struggling to find himself.

"He was still dealing with the neighborhood pressures, the fact he looked different than his parents and things like that," said Jenkins, the football coach at Washburn. "So we caught him at a very volatile period of maturity and growth."

Talent's no issue. He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it. Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak.

-- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
on Ra'Shede Hageman
An admitted "knucklehead" in high school, Ra'Shede enjoyed chasing girls, hanging out with the boys and playing sports. Classes didn't fit into his itinerary.

He needed someone to provide structure.

"Coach G just took me under his wing and made me understand I have opportunities that are different from other people," Ra’Shede said.

As a tight end for Washburn, Hageman had 12 touchdown catches as a junior and 11 as a senior. The scholarship offers flowed in from schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Hageman opted to stay home and play at Minnesota.

After redshirting in 2009, Hageman reached another crossroads the following season. Minnesota had fired coach Tim Brewster in mid-October. In early November, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for the rest of the season for academic reasons. Hageman was hardly alone. When Kill arrived as coach in December, he inherited more than 25 players on academic probation.

"I was a procrastinator," Hageman said. "It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. At that time, it wasn’t exciting. I was just lazy. I used to hate going to study hall because it took away from my nap time."

Kill provided a wake-up call for Hageman the day before a final exam. After Hageman didn't show up for a study session, Kill frantically called Eric Hageman and stayed on the line as he marched across campus to Ra'Shede's dorm room.

He banged on the door, only to find Ra'Shede asleep.

"He basically dragged him back to the football office and had one of the coaches do flash cards with him for four or five hours to get him ready," Eric Hageman said.

Added Ra'Shede: "Coach Kill was like, 'Obviously, you’re a better person than you are right now. Focus on your school and football, rather than focusing on the college party life and all that. You only get one shot at this.' He was real blunt that day. Ever since then, I’ve had my head on straight.”

Hageman left the "old Ra'Shede" behind. He's now in good academic standing, taking his final class for a degree in youth studies. His education continues on the field, too, as he goes through his fourth season at defensive tackle after switching from offense.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Leeb
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNow a senior, Hageman could eventually become an early round NFL draft pick.
His production spiked from his sophomore to junior year, when he recorded six sacks and a forced fumble. The growth is continuing this fall, as Hageman already has 6.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks, an interception and six pass breakups.

"It's still a new position," said Hageman, who bypassed the draft after last season to complete his degree and improve at his position. "Jadeveon Clowney and other defensive players, they've been playing their whole life. I'm still learning so many new things about the position every day.

"My better days are still ahead of me."

Hageman wants to be a combination of Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt, which is fitting as one plays 4-3 tackle and the other 3-4 end, two positions Hageman could play at the next level. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the NFL will benefit Hageman, who will face fewer exotic blocking schemes (mostly zone), taller offensive lineman (right now, his pad level is often too high against smaller players) and fewer double teams, at least initially.

"At the next level, he'll continue to get even better," Claeys said. "There's no guarantees, but once he gets to the combine, they'll see how good he is. He's just an extremely powerful kid, and he continues to mature. The structure part of it, whoever he plays for, if they put a pretty decent structure in place, Ra'Shede will continue to grow and be fine."

Kill likens Hageman to Brandon Jacobs, his former player at Southern Illinois who left school with rawness and promise. The New York Giants provided the structure Jacobs needed, and he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.

So many have provided structure for Hageman, from his parents to Jenkins to Kill to his academic advisor, Jacki Lienesch, to his older brother, Lazal. Now he's ready to stand on his own two massive feet.

"It doesn't matter where you start out," Eric Hageman said. "It's where you end up."

At times, Hageman reflects on his unique path. This summer, he shared his story with kids around Minneapolis.

Jenkins, who often has Hageman talk to his players, calls Hageman "an example for everybody, everywhere."

"Not everybody comes from a silver spoon," Hageman said. "If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, no matter what type of person you are. I'm definitely a product of that. Having my trials of me being adopted and me being in different situations, I just stayed focused on my prize and kept working toward it."

He'll continue working. But he's already won.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
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Ten things to keep your eyes on in the five Big Ten games on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
1. Can Iowa's defense slow down Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes? The Hawkeyes boast a solid group of linebackers, and the Hawkeyes are ranked ninth in the country in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Still, they haven't faced an offense anywhere close in talent to Ohio State, and it'll be interesting to see how Kirk Ferentz's squad matches up. For Ohio State, it hasn't mattered who's lined up under center or in the backfield. The Buckeyes have posted at least 31 points in every game -- and 40 points in five out of six. Iowa hasn't allowed more than 30 points all season. Something has to give.

2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.

3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.

4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.

5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIIllinois coach Tim Beckman says the players believe and are no longer saying "Can we do it" but instead are now saying "When we do it."
6. Illini still riding a conference-worst streak: Illinois has dropped 15 straight Big Ten games, which means it last won a conference game on Oct. 8, 2011, against Indiana. Illinois plays Purdue on Nov. 23 but, before then, there will be no easy victories. The Illini will play Wisconsin this weekend, followed by Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and Ohio State. Luckily for Tim Beckman's crew, it's still nowhere close to the Big Ten record for the worst conference losing streak. That unfortunate record-holder would be Northwestern, which lost 38 straight Big Ten games between 1978 and 1982.

7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.

8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.

9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.

10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.

Youth being served at QB in Big Ten

October, 9, 2013
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Freshman Danny Etling will make his first career start at quarterback for Purdue this weekend, two weeks after making his college debut vs. Northern Illinois.

Boilermakers fans are excited about the future of their young signal-caller, and in that they have company in the Big Ten. Though quarterback is generally viewed as a position that takes experience and maturity to handle, several Big Teams have gone with a youth movement under center.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesRedshirt freshman signal-caller Tommy Armstrong has shown he has a bright future at Nebraska while filling in for Taylor Martinez.
In fact, Etling can look across the field on Saturday and see another young player in his position: Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, who is expected to fill in for the injured Taylor Martinez for the third straight game. Etling will be the fourth freshman quarterback to start for a Big Ten program this season, meaning a full third of the league has trusted its offense to a player in his first year of college competition.

What happened to making guys wait their turn and hold clipboards for a few years? The explosion of offense throughout the sport has helped speed the development for quarterbacks.

"I think they are more prepared earlier with all the 7-on-7s and everything that's going on," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "There's been more of an opportunity for guys to go out and throw all summer long."

"Some of these kids are playing year round football," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They're coming in more prepared, and the talent's better. I think the offensive game has gotten to where maybe it's helping quarterbacks."

Freshman quarterbacks aren't a new phenomenon. Minnesota started freshman Philip Nelson last year, while Wisconsin started turned to redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld didn't start but saw a lot of time last season as a freshman. Two years ago, Braxton Miller started for Ohio State his first year of playing, while Indiana played freshman Tre Roberson. Current seniors Martinez and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase both started as redshirt freshman.

Still, the crop of young quarterbacks seems especially large this year, and it's one that could impact the Big Ten for years to come.

The headliner of the group is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, who was ranked as the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit last year. Despite not arriving on campus until the summer, Hackenberg has started since the opener. He ranks second in the league in passing yards with 1,367 while throwing for eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

"When you see a guy with [Hackenberg's] body language and how he handles himself, I think it's very impressive," said Hoke, whose Wolverines play at Penn State on Saturday. "I think he looks very composed and he has handled different situations very well. A lot of things impress me about him, like the way he moves up in the pocket and I think he throws a great football."

I think they are more prepared earlier with all the 7-on-7s and everything that's going on. There's been more of an opportunity for guys to go out and throw all summer long.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke on freshmen quarterbacks playing in college football.
Minnesota's experience with a first-year quarterback didn't end with Nelson. Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner stepped in earlier this season when Nelson was hurt and then got the start over Nelson last week at Michigan. At 6-foot-4, 230-pounds, he's a hard-nosed runner who ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. Last week, he completed 14 of 21 passes for 145 yards and ran for 66 yards.

"I really thought he made some big plays with his legs and executed really pretty good,” acting coach Tracy Claeys said after the loss to Michigan.

Armstrong had to step in for Martinez, who continues to battle a case of turf toe. He has gotten Huskers fans excited by his play, completing 20 of 28 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in his first two games. The idea that he should replace a healthy Martinez is silly, but the future looks bright.

"He's still a work in progress," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "There are some mistakes he made that might not have been real apparent to the naked eye, but they're still there and he's still learning a lot. I think every time he goes out there, it gives him an opportunity to grow. Mistakes and things will happen to him, but he's a smart guy and he understands the offense and what's being asked of him."

Etling completes the quarter of first-year quarterbacks. Purdue fans were thrilled to see him throw for 241 yards and two touchdowns (along with two picks) in the otherwise disappointing loss to Northern Illinois. Etling was the most important recruit in Hazell's first signing class, and his ceiling is so high that former starter Rob Henry has been moved to safety for the rest of his senior year. While Hazell says Etling opens up the entire passing game for the Boilers, he won't put too much on his plate early.

"He's a very bright guy who works very hard, and he's one heck of a talent," Hazell said. "I'm really looking forward to his progress here in the next few years."

Several Big Ten fan bases are saying the same thing right now about their starting quarterback.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has yet to return to work after suffering a seizure Saturday morning which prevented him from traveling to the team's game at Michigan.

Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, filling in for Kill on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, is communicating regularly with Kill and said the coach continues to rest while working with his doctors to get his medication under control. Claeys, who served as Minnesota's head coach against Michigan, said Sunday that Kill's latest seizure stemmed from a recent change in his medications.

Minnesota is off the week and doesn't resume practice until Wednesday. Asked if Kill plans to return for Wednesday's workout, Claeys said they hadn't discussed it when they spoke Tuesday morning.

"Since we don't play this week, there's no sense in hurrying," Claeys said.

According to Claeys, Minnesota's players haven't been asking many questions about Kill's status. They were disappointed to learn he wouldn't coach Saturday at Michigan Stadium, but "it wasn't a shock." Kill hadn't been feeling well Friday and didn't travel with the team to Michigan.

Kill has had five seizures either during or near games since becoming Minnesota's head coach.

"Everybody's frustrated," Claeys said. "We all know the routine. This has happened before. It’s just going through that process of same old, same old. I don’t mean to talk about it all the time. Really, it’s the same process, and when he gets back, he gets back."
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It’s the kind of routine the Gophers never wanted to establish.

But after Minnesota coach Jerry Kill missed the Gophers’ 42-13 loss to Michigan on Saturday due to a seizure, it seems as though Minnesota has found a way to strike a new normal without Kill on the sideline.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys, Brady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingTracy Claeys (left) said the Gophers did everything they could against Brady Hoke and Michigan despite the absence of head coach Jerry Kill.
“We went through so much over these last two seasons. … Thanks to our coaching staff being able to adapt to any kind of scenario," Minnesota safety Brock Vereen said. "I don’t think a lot of things phase us anymore as far as situations like that."

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys served as the Gophers’ head coach on Saturday, coaching from the press box.

This was the fifth time Kill has missed game time, and the second game-day seizure this season. However, it is the first time that he had missed an entire game due to a seizure.

While the team has adjusted in the past to mid-game changes, this was the first time the Gophers went in to a game knowing that their coach wouldn’t be there at all. But according to Claeys and players, that didn’t affect the team.

“We know Coach’s situation,” tight end Maxx Williams said. “We know we have to be ready. All the coaches are prepared. We felt like we were really ready for this game, and I don’t think this changed anything. We know Coach goes through some things and we all know about it so it doesn’t really affect us. We just go on a business trip here and try to win the game.”

Claeys thought that the team and coaches responded as well as they could. Kill was diagnosed with epilepsy more than a decade ago and seven of his assistant coaches have been around him through that entire time.

“We’ve been through a lot of battles together,” Claeys said.

Kill didn’t make the trip with the team Friday night and was expected to fly in Saturday morning, but when he suffered a seizure Saturday morning, he chose to stay in Minnesota.

Claeys found out shortly after Kill made his decision and informed the Gophers during their team walk-through at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

“We’re all trained very well in what our job is and what our responsibilities are, and I thought we did a good job handling the kids,” Claeys said. “I thought the kids had a great attitude, fought hard. We miss him as a friend not being here. But as far as the way the game operates or anything like that, we’re all pretty used to it and the kids are too.”

Rebecca Kill, Jerry’s wife, did reach out to Claeys, offering support as Minnesota began its game-day preparations.

“She loves the game and she’s as much a part of the team as anybody,” Claeys said. “She just texted me and said that she and Jerry missed being here and missed being around us, and for the kids to compete hard and do their best and bring the jug back to Minnesota.”

But Claeys said he didn’t speak with Jerry or Rebecca on the phone before the game as Jerry would’ve felt as though that wasn’t advantageous to the Gophers at all.

Minnesota now has a bye week for Kill and his team to get better before they continue conference play with a trip to Northwestern on Oct. 19.

“Even not being here, he inspires us so much,” Vereen said. “He’s going through so much and we know deep down he wants to be here more than anything and it’s hurting him not to be here. And that’s motivation to play harder. Unfortunately we don’t get to bring that jug back to him. We know he’ll be all right.”
Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is matter of fact when talking about the state of the Gophers' linebacker position.

"I think everybody knows that's the one group we need better performance out of to keep developing as a defense," he told ESPN.com.

Claeys might be able to get a strong performance out of his linebackers in 2013, but it won't be because of their experience. The position was the hardest hit by graduation and other factors in the offseason. Starters Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper completed their eligibility, as did backups Spencer Reeves and Ryan Grant. Florida transfer Brendan Beal gave up football after a string of injuries, and reserve Lamonte Edwards was recently dismissed from the team after an off-the-field incident.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hill
AP Photo/Jesse JohnsonAaron Hill will be Minnesota's most experienced returning linebacker.
That leaves Aaron Hill as the lone returning starter, and one of the only guys with any game experience. But while the linebacker group is wildly unproven right now, Claeys does have some options.

"The one thing we did show this spring is we have enough bodies there," he said. "It's just a matter of, can they do what we ask them to do, and can they be consistent?"

Junior college transfer Damien Wilson enrolled in January and could start at middle linebacker. Redshirt freshmen Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis -- Mike's younger brother -- also got a lot of reps this spring. Claeys said all three started to come on strong in the last couple of weeks of spring practice.

This summer brought a wave of new faces at the position, including junior college transfer De'Vondre Campbell, and true freshmen De'Niro Laster, Chris Wipson and Rayfield Dixon. Campbell was a late addition just before signing day, and the coaches were excited about his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame.

"He's a good-looking kid," Claeys said. "He's got length and height and everything you want in a Big Ten linebacker. Hopefully, the other guys are getting him comfortable in what to do scheme-wise and things like that. Then in fall camp, we'll spend a lot of time with De'Vondre and those new guys."

Hill, who has been a solid if unspectacular player for the Gophers so far, has taken on added importance this summer. With the coaches unable to work directly with players until next month, Claeys is relying on his veteran senior to help get the new guys up to speed during voluntary workouts.

"I think we can make some jumps during the summer," Claeys said. "By getting De'Vondre and those guys comfortable with the base calls of our scheme, they may have a chance to help us. The more time our linebackers put in together, the better we'll be."

Claeys said every linebacker will get a chance to show what he can do during the first two weeks of fall practice, and then the Gophers will start paring things down. He likes the speed and athleticism Minnesota has brought into the program at that position. The question is whether the young players can overcome their inexperience.

"I think we've got a good mix there," he said. "But we're going to need some kids to help us and contribute who haven't played a lot."
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.

Pregame: Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

December, 28, 2012
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Minnesota (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten) vs. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5 Big 12)

WHO TO WATCH: Texas Tech receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. They are big targets in the red zone and caught 24 of quarterback Seth Doege's 38 touchdowns this season. Only two other teams have two receivers with double-digit touchdown catches. Tech's offense runs as Doege, Ward and Moore run. Additionally, tight end Jace Amaro has been cleared to play after missing the final six games of the season with a rib injury. He adds another dangerous asset to Texas Tech's offense, which ranked 12th nationally this year. West Virginia's Geno Smith is the only quarterback with more touchdown passes than Doege.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can Minnesota compete? The two-touchdown line is one of the largest of the bowl season, but the Golden Gophers will have an opportunity to log their best win of the season since knocking off 7-5 Syracuse back on Sept. 22. The Golden Gophers lost three of their final four games of the season -- all by at least 16 points -- but all three losses came to bowl teams. Also, how will both teams handle the loss of big contributors -- wide receiver A.J. Barker (transfer) for Minnesota and cornerback Cornelius Douglas (suspension) for Texas Tech?

WHY TO WATCH: You might find a piece of the answer to the eternal question of how important quarterback play is. Tech's Doege has had his share of struggles, but he has been the guy all season for the Red Raiders and racked up 3,934 passing yards and is 12th nationally in passer rating. Minnesota, meanwhile, has played musical chairs with its quarterbacks all season long and sophomore Max Shortell was frustrated enough to transfer. Philip Nelson will get the start for Minnesota, but will he stay there? Texas Tech fans also can tune in to see how much screen time new coach Kliff Kingsbury gets during the game.

PREDICTION: Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 17. I don't think the Gophers can keep up with the speed and efficiency of Texas Tech's offense. The Red Raiders will have some defensive issues of their own, too, even though Minnesota ranks 111th nationally in total offense. Too much Red Raiders, though. Amaro returns in a big way, and Moore is a pest in the red zone for the Golden Gophers.

Bonus picks! Here's what Big Ten colleagues Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett have to say by way of a prediction:

Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers' secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ...Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.

Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21

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