Kill still focused on rebuilding
MINNEAPOLIS — Every day, Jerry Kill and his staff have to check with dozens of Golden Gopher football players just to make sure they're going to class.
In his first year as coach at Minnesota, Kill is also finding out that many of the players he inherited lack the fundamental skills to succeed on the field and the faith that the assistants and support staff will be around to see them through their time at the university.
Kill is used to rebuilding projects, but he has quickly learned that his latest venture is going to take more work than even he initially anticipated.
"Any time you get hired, you don't know everything until you get in it," Kill said. "You've got to get in here and see and then you go to work. I'm excited. I haven't lost any juice or excitement. We're just going to keep plugging away."
Kill's first season has been a rough one. The Gophers have lost five of their first six games and he has worked to control a seizure disorder that caused him to miss stretches of practice earlier in the year.
The challenges are everywhere for the relentless coach, from his own health to making sure that players feel comfortable knowing that the coaches and staff they are working with now are going to be the same coaches and staff they see next year and the year after.
Turnover on the assistant level was a huge problem under former coach Tim Brewster, and Kill has sensed wariness in his players because of it.
"We've had so much turnover, these poor kids have never got close to anybody," Kill said. "They don't know who is going to come in next. They're probably waiting to see what three coaches are going to leave now. Who is going to leave in academics? Are there two trainers that are going to leave?"
His biggest immediate task is to keep his players working. The Gophers lost their previous two games by a combined score of 103-17, demoralizing losses at Michigan and Purdue in which the team looked lifeless from the start.
Linebacker Lamonte Edwards said all the losing has started to take its toll.
"It has," Edwards said. "We've just got to be able to bounce back, forget about the losses and play as hard as we can."
Things aren't going to get any easier, either. The Gophers host 13th-ranked Nebraska (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) on Saturday, then have games against Iowa, at Michigan State and against Wisconsin.
Kill grabbed headlines during the bye week when he spoke at a breakfast of civic leaders and said he has to check on 63 players daily to make sure they're going to class and then said he thinks it will take four more recruiting classes before he can evaluate whether his plan is working here, as it has at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois before he took this job.
"We have some issues," Kill said. "And the way you solve those issues is you hold everybody accountable."
In doing so, Kill plans to find out who he can go forward with next year and who just can't cut it in his program.
"I want to find out, and sometimes you have to find lessons out the hard way," Kill said. "But we'll find a lot of good things out, too. We'll find out some kids that were a lot tougher than we thought they were in some areas. We've found some of that out to this point."
So far, Kill said the team is sticking together. But the season is only halfway over.
"You want to be successful, especially for these seniors who have been through so much," sophomore defensive back Brock Vereen said. "But if there's anything positive to take away from how this year has gone so far is that, looking forward to the future, you can definitely learn from this.
"But that doesn't mean we're looking past this year at all. We have a big game this Saturday and five more big games after that."
While some followers have grumbled about the seeming lack of progress on the field in Kill's first season, the coach said his confidence in his method has not wavered.
"I certainly feel comfortable about the path we're taking," he said. "I'm not happy about where we're at with our football program right now, but it ain't the kids' fault. It's a process. We've just got to keep working."