Claeys steps in, stays the course

Tracy Claeys will act as head coach without uprooting Jerry Kill’s team.

Gophers defensive back Brock Vereen practices Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.

Emily Dunker

Gophers defensive back Brock Vereen practices Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.

Nate Gotlieb

Tracy Claeys may be the Gophers’ acting head coach, but he’s not stressing the “head coach” part of the job title.

“It’s Jerry Kill’s program,” Claeys, the defensive coordinator, said at a press conference Tuesday. “Besides those decisions in game management, we’ll do it just like coach Kill does.”

Minnesota players said Tuesday the team is preparing for its game against Northwestern on Saturday as it normally would. But they also said Kill and Claeys have somewhat different coaching styles.

“Kill is much more on you about certain things,” senior safety Brock Vereen said. “But like I said, coach Claeys still demands the very best out of us.”

Claeys took over head coaching duties when Kill had a seizure before the Gophers played Michigan on Oct. 5. The University announced Oct. 10 that Kill would take an indefinite leave of absence and Claeys would serve as acting head coach.

Claeys, 44, has coached with Kill since 1995 but is more soft-spoken and even-keeled than his boss and longtime friend. Claeys said Kill will let a player know about his mistakes, whereas he is more likely just to play the next guy.

“I try to stay pretty calm and pretty focused,” Claeys said. “[Kill] is a very intense, highly wired person.”

Vereen described Claeys as a football guru who is slow to anger.

“I’ve seen him mad before, but he doesn’t show his emotions a lot,” he said. “He’s easy to play for.”

Claeys told the team of Kill’s leave of absence at a team meeting last Thursday. Players said they were in shock early on but are supportive of Kill’s decision to seek treatment.

“He’s a second father to most of us,” Vereen said. “We know that this is the best thing for him. So we’re in full support of that.”

Redshirt sophomore center Jon Christenson said practice has gone on as usual these past two weeks.

He said Kill’s decision to take time to focus on his health serves as an inspiration to the team.

Minnesota is looking for its first Big Ten win after ugly losses against Iowa and Michigan. The Gophers have especially struggled on offense but will look for consistency from starting redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner.

Leidner made his first Big Ten start against Michigan and did enough to keep the starting job moving forward, Claeys said Tuesday.

Sophomore Philip Nelson started for four games, but poor play and injuries vaulted Leidner into the role.

Claeys left open the possibility that Nelson could get some snaps early in the game this Saturday but was clear that Minnesota won’t employ a two-quarterback system.

“I’d like to get [Nelson] in the game sometime earlier,” Claeys said. “But I think Mitch deserved that opportunity.”

Minnesota had a bye last week, which came at a good time for its ailing secondary.

Three Gophers defensive backs — Cedric Thompson, Derrick Wells and Martez Shabazz — had been nursing injuries, but Claeys said all three have been practicing since Sunday.

Vereen took some reps at cornerback last week in practice, but Claeys said he hasn’t decided where Vereen will play this weekend.

Notes

4 Claeys said he is unsure whether Kill will watch the game from home. “I’ve known him a long time, and I can’t answer that question,” Claeys said. “I don’t know if he could sit there and watch it or not, or if he’d go for his walk on the river and find out what happened later.”

4 Freshman quarterback Chris Streveler won’t play Saturday because of an injury, Claeys said. Freshman Conor Rhoda will serve as the team’s third-string quarterback.

4 Thompson and receiver Derrick Engel underwent concussion tests early last week but were both cleared to play.

4 Claeys said the defense focused on third-down play during practice last week. He also said the defensive line focused a lot on pass-rush situations.