MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — At times during Jerry Kill’s first season at Minnesota, improvement was invisible to outside observers.
This month, progress finally appeared. But Kill still has a lot of work to do with this rebuilding project.
“I’ll be disappointed if we don’t move it forward,” the coach said, adding: “I think that where we’re at right now is pretty much where you usually are when you take over a football program. You really don’t know what you have or where you’re at or how the school works. It takes you a full year to go through it, how the Big Ten is, the level of play and how far you’re away.”
Despite suffering a series of severe seizures, including the scary episode on Sept. 10 that silenced an entire stadium and sent him to a hospital for several days, Kill maintained his relentless approach to reviving the long-struggling Gophers, who finished 3-9.
Losing at home to New Mexico State, which went 4-8, and North Dakota State, an FCS powerhouse but an FCS team nonetheless, were low points. Then the Gophers truly bottomed out with consecutive blowout defeats on the road to start the Big Ten season, 58-0 at Michigan and 45-17 at Purdue.
But Kill guided the Gophers through some dark days and watched them finish on a winning note, a dominant 27-7 victory on Saturday over Illinois. They beat rival Iowa, too, and gave Michigan State quite a game, too, just as they did in the opener at USC. Both of those losses came by one score, and the Gophers had a legitimate chance to win in the end on the road against two teams now ranked No. 11 and No. 9, respectively, in the nation.
Outgoing senior defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey didn’t hesitate when asked what the best attribute is the Gophers have going for them entering 2012.
“Will,” Kirksey said. “There’s no breaking coach Kill’s will and the will that he’s enforced over the team.”
The defense gave up more than 400 yards per game and managed only one interception in eight Big Ten games. Kirksey, defensive tackle Brandon Jacobs, middle linebacker Gary Tinsley, free safety Kim Royston and two other starters in the secondary will be gone, too. Royston finished third in the conference in tackles and was named the team’s most valuable player on defense.
But the pass rush got a lot better down the stretch. The Gophers more than doubled their sack total from last year, from eight to 19. The tackling was flawless against Illinois.
“I’ve said all along, now. We’re going to build this thing on defense,” Kill said.
Ra’Shede Hageman could help. The sophomore, a converted tight end whose career has been a disappointment so far, had two sacks on Saturday from his defensive tackle spot.
“We’ve been patient. He’s been patient. He’s a big man. He’s hard to handle in there,” Kill said.
The improvement of MarQueis Gray is one of the most promising developments toward next season. He set the school record for yards rushing by a quarterback and had two of his best performances against Michigan State and Illinois, two of the top three defenses in the conference this year.
“He could be an awful good player,” Kill said.
Gray’s accuracy was abysmal early in the season, and he didn’t play with much confidence. But injuries to his toe and his back hindered his momentum, and this was the first year he was a full-time quarterback since his senior year in high school in 2007, after sitting out the 2008 season and playing primarily wide receiver the last two years.
Two seniors, right tackle Chris Bunders and center Ryan Wynn, must be replaced. But injuries along the offensive line gave freshmen Caleb Bak, Marek Lenkiewicz and Zac Epping each an opportunity to start at least one game. The Olson brothers, Ed and Tom, will have an offseason to heal after getting banged up down the stretch.
Wide receiver Da’Jon McKnight and running back Duane Bennett were productive players who are also departing seniors, but Kill promised an aggressive approach to recruiting that will help supplement the skill-position players returning at those positions.
“Are we going to get the same recruit that USC is right now? No, but we’ve got to recruit what we need here at the University of Minnesota to get our program going, and I feel like we can do that,” Kill said.
Kill clearly hasn’t been one to back down.
“I know my health situation is something that can be controlled, and every once in a while something might happen, but I’m not going to let that define who I am or anything like that. I’ll just keep plunging along,” Kill said, adding: “I don’t think the good Lord is ready for me, believe me. I’m too ornery.”
The Gophers will keep plugging along, too. The continuity of a returning coaching staff will sure help.
“All those guys are going to have that wisdom now, and the incoming freshmen will know that, and that’s important,” Wynn said.
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