Through the first two years of Jerry Kill’s tenure as the University of Minnesota’s football coach, the NFL Draft didn’t mean much in Dinkytown.
After a 3-9 campaign in 2011, none of Kill’s players were selected. The same thing happened the next year.
As Minnesota has steadily improved over the past few seasons, so has its players’ draft stock. In 2014, two of Kill’s players were selected.
And last week, four former Gophers were taken in the NFL Draft, punctuating the improvement the program has seen under Kill in four years.
There were significant bumps in the road along the way, but Kill has changed the football culture at Minnesota, and signs point to more improvement coming in the future.
“When we first got here, we recruited good kids. They slowly changed the culture,” Kill said. “The ones that stayed here under the change — my hat’s off to them because they had to go through a lot.”
Sound mind, sound body
A lot had to change for the Gophers to go from winning just three games in Kill’s first season at Minnesota to reaching eight victories in back-to-back years most recently.
It started with two simple objectives for the players: creating both a sound mind and a sound body.
“When we got here, we had 20 kids on academic probation. We had four kids dismissed from school,” Kill said. “Football’s a lot smarter game than people think it is, so I think we got a lot smarter in the classroom and a lot smarter on the field.”
While Kill and his long-tenured staff cleaned up the team’s academics issues, strength coach Eric Klein sculpted better athletes in the weight room.
“Our weight room situation needed to get better,” Kill said. “We had to develop the mind better, and we had to develop the body better.”
Improving overall health became an objective for Kill over time, too. Multiple mid-game seizures resulted in columnists locally and nationally claiming he was unfit to do his job.
After taking a leave of absence in 2013, Kill didn’t miss a game during the 2014 campaign and his epilepsy appears to be under control.
“Everybody talks about my health sometimes, and that’s OK,” Kill said. “I come to work every day, and I enjoy what I do. I’m probably healthier than a hell of a lot of other people. It just so happens that mine’s public. If I have the flu, it’s on the social network. It’s just the way it is. I’m hanging in there. My situation, it’s always going to be day by day, but I don’t worry about it anymore.”
Establishing a winning culture
When defensive back Cedric Thompson was a freshman in 2011, it didn’t seem like many of his teammates wanted to win badly enough.
“We would lose those games, people would act like they didn’t care,” said Thompson, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins last week. “As the process went on with coach Kill, we cared more and more about winning and being together as a team.”
To get players to buy in, Kill and his staff became strict. If a player wasn’t getting work done in the classroom, was late to a team meeting or had a bad attitude, he’d sit on the bench.
“The way we changed them was just discipline,” Kill said. “Eventually, they understood Coach isn’t going to change.”
Bringing in good people helped with the process. Thompson came to Minnesota from a disadvantaged background and was just happy to have a chance to play.
Maxx Williams became the conference’s top tight end and an Academic All-American. David Cobb developed into the program’s single-season rushing leader after having only one other Power Five scholarship offer.
“[Kill] and his staff have done a great job of bringing in guys who are quality guys on and off the field and coaching us to reach the best of our ability,” said former defensive back Brock Vereen, now with the Chicago Bears. “Changing the culture of a team isn’t something that you can do in one or two years. It takes time.”
Opening the door to more success
Spring games are notoriously boring. Most teams’ top players don’t even see the field, and offenses are wary of showing too much of their playbook because the games are nationally televised and future opponents can watch.
But at Minnesota’s spring game last month, something exciting happened.
Nigel Warrior, the third-ranked defensive back in the country, was walking up and down the sidelines on an unofficial visit.
“Even Nigel Warrior showing up just speaks volumes. He had to come on his own dime to the spring game,” said Gopher Illustrated publisher Ryan Burns, who has covered Gophers recruiting for four years.
Just about every major program in the country has shown interest in Warrior, ranging from Alabama to Auburn and Ohio State. But Minnesota’s success over the past few seasons, defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel’s track record of sending players to the NFL and wide receiver coach Brian Anderson’s relationship with
Warrior’s father give Minnesota a chance at the standout defensive back.
“It’s a long shot, but that long shot two years ago, three years ago, would have been zero. Now maybe it’s one in 100,” Burns said.
The Gophers landed highly touted Minneapolis native Jeff Jones in 2014 and recently got a commitment from the state’s top player in the 2016 class: linebacker Carter Coughlin.
But sometimes getting top in-state players to stay home can be more difficult than bringing in talent from other areas of the country because Minnesota doesn’t have a good reputation historically.
“That’s the hardest sell we have because of all the negative publicity throughout the years, which is [deserved] I guess,” Kill said. “So we try to overcome that.”
Led by Coughlin, Minnesota’s 2016 recruiting class is shaping up to be the best one Kill’s assembled at Minnesota.
But just because the Gophers are starting to land more sought-after players doesn’t mean Kill is altering his recruiting style in any way.
“We’re not going to change our recruiting philosophy. It’s worked pretty good,” Kill said. “I don’t ever look at how many stars this guy’s got and we’re going to recruit him. We recruit off film.”
Minnesota has some serious holes to fill on the offensive side of the ball with Cobb and Williams moving on to the NFL. But the growth they and others have shown under Kill should help the team reload and get even better down the road.
“People understand that we must recruit decent or we wouldn’t have four guys going in the NFL Draft,” Kill said. “That will build momentum going into this class.”