Higher expectations await Kill, Gophers

Gophers head coach Jerry Kill spoke to the Minnesota Daily on Friday about the team’s outlook for his second season.

Higher expectations await Kill, Gophers

Charlie Armitz

CHICAGO — Gophers head coach Jerry Kill has stressed one word since his hiring in December 2010 — process. He was quick to use the word again Friday at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, describing the role of time in a rebuilding effort that has lasted 19 months with few tangible improvements.

Minnesota’s 2012 season presents a major checkpoint in Kill’s process — and perhaps a sense of urgency as well.

Star quarterback MarQueis Gray, whose struggles as a rising quarterback have been well-documented, enters his senior season with high expectations. He and his teammates will be asked to step up as leaders, especially in the wake of Gary Tinsley’s tragic death in April.

All of this comes with a lofty goal in mind by Minnesota’s standards — win a bowl game for the first time in eight years.

Kill spoke Friday about his expectations for 2012, his team’s leadership and its stability.

– Kill called the Gophers’ season opener at UNLV a “critical game,” adding that “we need to create some winning habits.” In last year’s season opener, Minnesota surprised many by taking ranked opponent USC down to the final drive. “But we didn’t win, and therefore we struggled the next week,” Kill said.

– Kill said he expects a tough test in the Gophers’ first four nonconference games, even though Minnesota will likely be favored to win each of them. “When we play a couple … mid-major teams, that’s their bowl game,” he said. “They’re going to play their very best football. There is no easy games.”

– After praising the team’s response to adversity at yesterday’s press conference, Kill said today that the team’s stability has helped it develop better chemistry. “We [had] seniors that have seen four, five different coordinators — there’s just not been a lot of stability in the program,” he said. “This year, we didn’t lose one coach. Our kids have never seen that here. I think there’s a little bit of a built-in trust that [the coaches] are going to try to change this thing.”

– Kill said linebacker Brendan Beal will be ready to start the season after suffering two ACL tears in the same knee in the last four years. “He’s a pretty relentless kid. … I’m sure he’s had some down moments, but he’s worked pretty hard.”

– Kill said he feels like Gray will have a “breakout year” after finishing last season strong. He said Gray has improved in many areas as a quarterback to grow more comfortable with the position.

– Kill said wide receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts “needs to have a big year for us” and “be a go-to guy in critical situations.” Crawford-Tufts caught eight passes for 195 yards last season, ranking seventh and fifth on the team, respectively. Minnesota’s only receiver with more than 200 yards last season, DaJon McKnight, graduated.

– On the decision to switch Brock Vereen to safety, Kill said the team needed help in the secondary. “Going into this season, I think our secondary is a bigger, faster, stronger group than we had a year ago,” Kill said.

– Kill said safety Derrick Wells, who switched from cornerback and has gained about 30 pounds, has a chance to be an All-Big Ten defensive back.

– Kill called the Gophers’ 27-7 season-ending win over Illinois their “most important win” of 2011. Minnesota had defeated Iowa in its eighth game and Miami (Ohio) in Week 3.

– Kill said the team is developing a “leadership council” in which select players will have a chance to discuss the program and have some input. He said the players will select the council’s 14-16 members. “If you let people have a voice in what you’re doing, it doesn’t mean you’ll change anything, but … they’re going to play harder.”