Kill preaches depth, staying healthy as practice starts Friday

Jace Frederick

Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill emphasized the importance of team health heading into the start of fall practices at a press conference Tuesday.

Kill said the key for the team was to stay healthy. He spoke of past years as being struggles to get the fully allotted 105 players into fall camp. This year, he said there will be decent players that can’t start camp, because there isn’t room.

Many of the players have put on size, something Kill said, along with improving skill level, were important.Kill said [head strength and conditioning coach] Eric Klein told him this is the first time in his years at the University of Minnesota that he feels like he’s getting Kill in a better position to have success.

“If he says that, I feel like we must be getting a little stronger and a little better athletically,” Kill said.

The head coach also gave status reports of a few key issues for the team and many of the positional groups.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Kill said the team is “very thick” when referring to the depth of interior defensive linemen. Aside from the often-publicized Ra’Shede Hageman, Cameron Botticelli, Scott Ekpe and Roland Johnson all provide help inside.

LINEBACKERS

Kill said the linebacking corps features two guys in Aaron White and James Manuel with a lot of experience, while everyone else “will have to learn a little bit.”

Kill said he thinks White will have a great year and that, athletically, Manuel is “definitely what we’re looking for.”

At the inside linebacker position, Kill said Jack Lynn and Damien Wilson are neck-and-neck.

Kill said the linebacking core is athletically gifted as a whole.

“We’ll look the part,” he said, “we just need to be able to play it.”

SECONDARY

Kill said the team is looking for depth on the backend of the defense. He emphasized the importance of the nickel and dime packages, pointing out the Gophers’ matchups with Indiana and Northwestern this year, both of which feature spread offenses.

Kill said cornerback Eric Murray stood out in the spring. He also mentioned Jeremy Baltazar and Briean Boddy as contributors.

With Derrick Wells’ move to cornerback this offseason, Cedric Thompson will be given the opportunity to step in at the safety slot alongside Brock Vereen. Kill said he really likes Thompson.

Kill said all of the safeties have put on 8 to 9 pounds.

QUARTERBACK

Kill said he thought Mitch Leidner was nervous to begin the spring game, but once he settled down, he and incumbent quarterback Philip Nelson put on a great game.

Nelson was quick to respond when asked if he felt he had to compete for the job or if he had it locked up.

“I think everybody needs to fight for their position this year.”

WIDE RECEIVERS

Devin Crawford Tuft’s departure from the team opens up opportunities for the team’s incoming freshman to possibly have an opportunity to contribute.

Quarterback Philip Nelson said freshmen wideouts Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky have done a good job coming in and trying to get a grasp of the offense.

“They have a lot of talent and I’m really excited to see what they can do in this camp,” he said.

Isaac Fruechte, who rooms with Philip Nelson, said he feels good about his ability to take on the role of go-to receiver, though he’s willing to do whatever’s necessary for the team.

“As long as I can help the team, that’s what I’m looking to do,” he said.

Fruechte said he thinks the receiving corps is as good as anybody. He himself has put on seven pounds this summer and is up to 212.

Fruechte said multiple players on the team have approached newly-reinstated receiver Andre McDonald to let him know they’re there to help him. He said McDonald is “all smiles” heading into camp.

Freshman quarterbacks Donovahn Jones and Chris Streveler will also see time at receiver this year. Nelson said it’s fun to throw the ball to Jones, who has an impressive vertical, and Streveler’s knowledge of the game from playing quarterback helps him with his route running. Nelson said he thinks both can be decent wideouts, if not better.

POWER RUNNING GAME

Kill talked about the importance of the ground game for the Gophers offense.

He said he wants to be able to run the ball similarly to how the Gophers ran it during Glen Mason’s tenure.

“I think we’re maybe a little more equipped to do that than we have been,” he said.

Kill spoke to the increased size of not only the offensive linemen, but also the tight ends.

Fruechte said there has even been an emphasis placed on receivers blocking downfield, enabling the running backs to bust off 60-plus yard runs.

Kill said the run game can set up the play-action passing game.

“It makes it easier on the quarterback and it makes you more proficient at throwing the football. I think it’s real important.”

KICKING/PUNTING

Kill made it clear there will be competition at the kicking positions this fall.

At punter, he said it’s a four-man competition between Dan Orseske, Christian Eldred, Peter Mortell and Ryan Santoso.

Santoso will also compete with Chris Hawthorne for the kicking job.

Kill spoke of a willingness to have someone handle field goals and someone handle kickoffs. He talked about even possibly having a short-distance kicker and a long-distance kicker.

Kill seemed confident in Mortell’s abilities as holder.

LEADERSHIP

Kill said the team probably won’t keep the leadership counsel idea from last year.

He said they might shift to having captains this year, but will determine that before the seasons starts.

“You get too many people talking, nobody listens,” he said.

Names Kill brought up when speaking of team leaders included Hill, Vereen, Nelson, Hageman, Leidner, Donnell Kirkwood and Josh Campion. 

KEEP THE PROGRAM PROGRESSING

Kill said the team needs to keep progressing.

“We need to keep climbing the mountain,” he said. “We need to keep getting better.”

Kill said the program needs a signature win in a critical game, something he got while at both Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. 

He said the Gophers also need to win more Big Ten games.

“We haven’t done that for awhile here,” he said. “I feel very cautiously optimistic that can happen.”