Kill’s leave, Gophers’ wins impact recruiting

A coach’s presence and a team’s ability to win are both on recruits’ minds.

Minneapolis Washburn High School senior running back Jeff Jones practices with his team Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013. Jones is a Gophers recruit, but has said head coach Jerry Kill's epilepsy makes him a little skeptical.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Minneapolis Washburn High School senior running back Jeff Jones practices with his team Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013. Jones is a Gophers recruit, but has said head coach Jerry Kill’s epilepsy makes him a little skeptical.

Jack Satzinger

The Gophers took another step in the right direction in the Jerry Kill era with their 42-39 win over Indiana University on Saturday.

It was the Gophers’ seventh win of the season and ensured they will finish this season with a better record than last season.

That’s huge for recruiting, especially in a year that the state of Minnesota has some of the better high school prospects in the nation, including Minneapolis Washburn High School running back Jeff Jones and Chanhassen High School offensive lineman Frank Ragnow.

“You have to start at home, and you have to secure those kids that you feel like can help you win a Big Ten championship at home,” defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys said.

Still, as much as recruits have said they admire Kill and his staff, there are still reservations about the program.

Jones said Kill’s battle with epilepsy affects his recruitment tremendously.

“You never know if [Kill’s] telling the truth or not, but I believe him,” Jones said. “I don’t believe he’ll be going anywhere any time soon, but it’s always in the back of my head when I’m looking at another school that has a coaching staff established.”

Jones gave a soft commit to the Gophers in February but has since reopened his recruitment as top-flight programs like Michigan State and Missouri have started to dole out offers.

Ragnow, on the other hand, said seeing the things Kill has overcome in his career makes him want to play for the Gophers even more. He said he sees Kill’s health problems as temporary.

“He’s had epilepsy for a lot of years, and he’s been a real successful coach,” Ragnow said. “This is just a bump. I think he’ll be fine, [and] I respect him for it.”

The call

On Oct. 19, just nine days after the University announced Kill would take an extended leave of absence to focus on his epilepsy treatment, Kill and his wife, Rebecca, drove to Evanston, Ill., to watch the Gophers’ 20-17 win over Northwestern. Kill, while still away from the team, called both Jones and Ragnow the next day to check in.

His message was clear: He isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

“He just let me know he would never recruit me if he wouldn’t be able to coach,” Ragnow said, “or if the University didn’t back him.”

At a press conference Sept. 16, two days after Kill’s game-day seizure against Western Illinois, athletics director Norwood Teague said University leaders are “100 percent behind [Kill].”

When the University announced Kill’s leave a few weeks later, Teague again spoke highly of Kill and said he didn’t think the time away would impact recruiting.

Claeys said he agreed.

“All the recruits … know the condition he has,” he said. “We’ve been very open and honest with the recruits. But the better he feels, the more and more he’ll do. And recruiting is part of it.”

Jones said the uncertainty surrounding Kill’s health does concern him a bit, especially when he’s trying to make a career out of football.

“It does [scare me] — just the fact that it isn’t a small thing,” Jones said. “It depends on my career as a college player. Will he be my head coach or not? That’s significant to me.”

Kill has been adamant that he will continue coaching for years to come. He’s been around the team for weeks now — in both practices and games — but still hasn’t resumed his traditional role.

Relating to recruits

Jones and Ragnow said they speak with Kill regularly, but both said the conversations aren’t always about football.

“He doesn’t necessarily spend the whole time recruiting,” Ragnow said. “We talk about fishing. We talk about hunting. We just talk. I like that.”

Jones said when he and Kill talk, their similar backgrounds sometimes come up.

Kill was raised in rural Kansas, and Jones lives in Minneapolis, but they had similar upbringings.

“He always had to work for his own stuff growing up,” Jones said, “and I feel like it’s the same way with me.”

Washburn head coach Giovan Jenkins said Jones’ grandparents took him in when he was young.

“His parents are around, but it was just a better situation to be with grandparents,” Jenkins said. “Now he’s in between grandparents and a lady that works [at Washburn] who has a son … who plays basketball with him.”

Jones grew up in a household without his biological father, but he might get someone to fill that role if he chooses Minnesota.

“He just wants me to look at him as more of a father figure than a coach,” Jones said. “That’s what I like about coach Kill.”

Showing them progress

Ragnow said he doesn’t have reservations about Kill’s health, but he said he’s concerned about the program’s ability to win.

“I love the coaching staff, [and] it’s close to home,” he said. “It’s just you’d love to see them win more.”

The Gophers have already eclipsed last season’s 6-7 record and are 7-2 through their first nine games this year. Still, top programs that win upwards of 10 games every year are also recruiting Ragnow.

That includes Big Ten rival Wisconsin, as well as Ohio State and Nebraska.

The Gophers haven’t topped Wisconsin in nine straight tries and last beat Ohio State in 2000.

Minnesota did, however, beat Nebraska on Oct. 26 for the first time since 1960.

Ragnow said he doesn’t expect the Gophers to turn into a powerhouse program overnight and said he will keep Minnesota in the mix until he makes his final decision.

“This is a big year for the Gophers,” Ragnow said. “I’m really watching closely, because I want to see progress.”

Jones agreed with Ragnow and compared Minnesota’s on-field success to that of the other programs going after him.

“Missouri’s top 10 in the country right now,” Jones said. “You can’t beat that.”

Minnesota wide receiver Donovahn Jones, who has seen increased reps during the last few weeks, was recruited by Missouri last year but opted for the Gophers instead. He said he doesn’t regret his decision, and much of that comes down to the honesty of Minnesota’s coaching staff.

“They never told me that I’d come in and be guaranteed playing time or anything like that,” Jones said. “They basically just told me I had an opportunity to play and I could help the team. And everything they told me so far has been true.”

Working together

The Gophers are a running football team — something that would make a Jones-Ragnow tandem ideal.

“That offense is a dream come true for a running back,” Jones said. “Kill loves to feed the ball to the running backs, and … it’ll be a perfect fit if that’s where I choose.”

Ragnow said he loves to run block and wants to play in an offense that runs the ball frequently.

Jones said he and Ragnow have entertained the idea of playing together but aren’t necessarily looking at being a package deal.

“We were saying if we both went there, it’d be significant for the Gophers,” Jones said.

If that happens, Washburn head coach Jenkins said he thinks Minnesota could return to the rushing success it had in the early 2000s with star running backs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III.

Jenkins said the program that establishes the best relationship with Jones will likely nab him.

Jones said he has a very strong relationship with Kill, but the head coach’s health makes the decision tougher.

As Minnesota continues to win games, Claeys said he thinks the choice will be a little easier for recruits.

“I will say this,” he said. “There’s a lot more that will listen to us now.”