Kill, players raise bar for 2013

University football coach Jerry Kill addresses the press at the Big Ten media days in Chicago on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

Dane Mizutani

University football coach Jerry Kill addresses the press at the Big Ten media days in Chicago on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

by Charlie Armitz

CHICAGO — The Gophers’ success on and off the field has steadily increased during Jerry Kill’s 32 months leading the program.

But the head coach’s message has remained the same.

“When you build a program, it all starts in the classroom,” Kill said Thursday at Big Ten media days in Chicago. “It all starts on how you handle yourself. That eventually moves right over to the field.”

Kill’s Gophers finished 6-7 last season after going 3-9 in 2011. They made their first bowl game since 2009, losing a heartbreaker to Texas Tech. They also posted a near-perfect Academic Progress Rate score for the 2011-12 school year — a dramatic improvement from the team’s academic struggles under previous coach Tim Brewster.

At media days, Kill and his players highlighted off-the-field success and discipline as a reason for their gains. They also talked about the ups and downs of last season, their heightened expectations for 2013 and Kill’s history of success in his third season.

– Kill said his players understand his vision better now than ever. Senior safety Brock Vereen said it took a couple of years for them to learn the “coach Kill way.”

Vereen agreed with Kill that the team’s academic improvements have helped them play better.

“It’s one less thing to worry about,” Vereen said. “When there’s less stuff to worry about off the field, all your attention can be focused on performance on the field.”

– Kill led his previous two teams — Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois — to improvements of six and three wins, respectively, in his third year as head coach. He said Wednesday that it usually takes three recruiting classes to shape a program to a coach’s liking. He’s had only two full recruiting classes (2012 and 2013) at Minnesota.

– To have similar success in his third year with the Gophers, Kill stressed that they’ll need to have a “signature win” in which they beat a team they’re not supposed to beat.

“Sometimes when you get a win like that, everywhere I’ve been, it carries on,” Kill said. “You gain confidence, and it starts a snowball effect. … I don’t think we’ve had that signature win yet. We came close at Texas Tech.”

The Gophers will likely be heavy underdogs in four or five Big Ten games this season, so they’ll have ample opportunity to earn a momentum-building victory. But winning 10 games, as Kill did in his third years at SIU and NIU, would come as a major surprise.

– Vereen said Kill’s third-year success gives the team confidence. “Coach Kill is a guy who has delivered,” Vereen said. “He delivers on everything. Everywhere he’s been, the third year is that biggest jump.”

– Kill said it’s important that the Gophers are playing four of their first five games at home in 2013. They’ll likely be favored in all four of their nonconference games as well. The coach has been criticized for his teams’ weak nonconference schedules, but he said Thursday that “I really haven’t had anything to do with the schedule.”

“Our schedule’s based on making money,” he said. “That’s how it is in this day and age.”

– Kill said the bowl game loss to Texas Tech in December gave the Gophers momentum entering the offseason. “That extra month of practice, you can’t put enough emphasis on having that opportunity,” he said. “It’s like having another spring ball [season].”

– The loss to Texas Tech was one of several missed opportunities in 2012, and Vereen said it will serve the Gophers well this season. “I think needed to have a season like last year to learn the lessons that we learned,” he said. “We learned that just because you deserve to win a game doesn’t mean you will win a game.”

– The Gophers’ top players are mostly healthy entering fall camp, but Kill hesitated when asked if the team is healthier than in previous offseasons. “We’ve been hit by the injury bug pretty hard,” he said. “We had 24, 26 offseason surgeries.”