Kill’s approach is new, with fans too

First-year coach Jerry Kill has implemented different plays and faster practices; he also chatted with fans Saturday afternoon.

Josh Katzenstein

After SaturdayâÄôs spring football practice, head coach Jerry Kill delayed talking to the media for about a half hour.

It wasnâÄôt intentional. He was too busy talking to some of the 200 or so fans that came to watch because, after all, itâÄôs their football team, he said.

ThatâÄôs the same reason the first-year coach is sending a signed letter to every fan who comes to a spring practice.

âÄúI appreciate the support. ItâÄôs their team,âÄù Kill said. âÄúI try to do as good a job to let people know I appreciate it.âÄù

He also appreciates how their support affects the Gophers players, who seem to practice harder when people are watching. Nobody wants to be embarrassed, especially because they know Kill wonâÄôt shy away from calling players out. The players also donâÄôt want to be singled out for not giving KillâÄôs system a chance.

âÄúEverybody realizes coach Kill is about his business,âÄù defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite said. âÄúEither you on the train or you not.âÄù

Duane Bennett is on the train. The soon-to-be-senior running back threw a block Saturday that made Kill yell, âÄúThatâÄôs not a good play. ThatâÄôs a great play!âÄù

Bennett will likely fit KillâÄôs offense, which asks something different of backs on every play, be it rushing, receiving or blocking.

The tight ends could have a different role this season as well, playing H-back more often than last season. The changes âÄî and increasing speed of practice âÄî donâÄôt bother the players, who are just hoping to improve on a 3-9 season.

âÄúWeâÄôre buying in a lot more than we did last year to the offense,âÄù tight end Eric Lair said. âÄúCoach Kill made us believe in what weâÄôre talking about.âÄù

Most players have had their share of blunders through the first three practices, but some have shone through with strong play.

Receiver DaâÄôJon McKnight could be the GophersâÄô best player next season. Last yearâÄôs leading pass-catcher grabs just about every ball thrown his way in practice, regardless of which quarterback threw it and how far out of his reach it might appear.

The class of the quarterbacks has so far been MarQueis Gray. While the younger signal callers have made poor decisions in drills, Gray has used his athleticism to out-shine his competitors. If targets arenâÄôt open, he takes off down the field. And when heâÄôs running, few people can catch him.

When the Gophers practice in full pads for the first time Tuesday, Kill will see whether GrayâÄôs speed holds up.

Two guys able to catch Gray in drills so far have been linebackers Gary Tinsley and Keanon Cooper, who is up to about 219 pounds and hasnâÄôt lost any speed. The Gophers had just eight sacks last season âÄî worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision âÄî but if practice is any indication, they will blitz a lot more than in 2010.

Cornerback Troy Stoudermire has caught an interception each day and has been solid covering McKnight when the two match up. Stoudermire almost left the team last season after ousted coach Tim Brewster told him he was switching from receiver to cornerback. He has since embraced the position change and will stay with the defense this season, though Kill said he might find a way to take advantage of Stoudermire on offense.

As for Stoudermire almost leaving last season, Kill doesnâÄôt care as long as heâÄôs on board now.

âÄúI canâÄôt control whatâÄôs happened in the past,âÄù Kill said. âÄúIâÄôm going forward and either you get on with it or not.âÄù