MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — On the eve of Minnesota’s first spring practice of the season, Golden Gophers coach Jerry Kill can say this much — he knows the names and faces of every player on the roster.
That may be a little bit more than he could have said at this time last year, when Kill was still getting acclimated to a new job, new conference and new set of players.
The players also have a much better idea of what to expect this season and what will be asked of them, so everyone is hoping that the familiarity will translate to more victories in 2012.
“I’m still trying to figure out some things here,” Kill said on Wednesday, a day before the Gophers were scheduled to hold their first spring practice of the season. “I don’t think you figure it out all today.
“But I think that from the level of where we are at, I certainly know more how things operate here at our university. I certainly know more about our players. I certainly know more about the Big Ten. I certainly know more about where we need to go and what we need to do.”
It was a bit of a scramble for Kill last year. He was hired in December from Northern Illinois to rebuild a program that was in ruins after the disastrous hiring of Tim Brewster, and Kill worked tirelessly to get a grip on the challenges presented at a school that hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl in more than 50 years.
Along the way he ran into some health problems with seizures, including one that happened during a game, but seems to have that issue under control now. He also ran into some resistance from players who were used to a more relaxed atmosphere around the program, but Kill has instilled a new sense of accountability and commitment to the classroom and weight room as the foundation for the rebuild.
“Can we fix it all today? No,” Kill said. “But I feel much more comfortable, and the coaching staff is all here; didn’t lose anybody. I just think we got a little bit of continuity going.”
That may be the biggest key of all. The Gophers had a heck of a time retaining coordinators for more than one season under Brewster, meaning the players were often learning completely different systems from one season to the next. You could see the uncertainty come out on the field, where the offense and defense were jumbled messes.
“It means a lot to us, having coach Kill and his whole staff come back,” senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire said. “The same playbook, not having to learn a whole new playbook, that means a lot and should help us play faster.”
Senior linebacker Mike Rallis remembered last spring’s practices as slightly chaotic, with players looking at each other and trying to figure out a new routine and a new set of demands. He expects things to be much smoother this time around, which should allow for more productive work to be accomplished.
“It’s a big difference,” Rallis said. “It allows you to not be thinking so much when you’re on the field or worried about how practice is going to go. You know what to expect, you know where you’re supposed to be on the field and then you can just go out there and play.”
Not everything is staying the same, however. Several players will be changing positions, including quarterback Moses Alipate moving to tight end, cornerback Brock Vereen to safety and safety James Manuel to weakside linebacker.
And even though MarQueis Gray is the starter at quarterback going into the spring, Kill isn’t handing anything to anyone.
“You never want anybody to get comfortable,” Kill said. “If you’re working with anybody at your job and you’ve got somebody comfortable, then you’re going to get fired. I don’t believe in (comfort). I believe in keeping people going the uphill direction.”
Rallis thinks the program is headed in the right direction, but he knows he’s not the first person to say that.
“I think the fans have heard it for a lot of years that this year could be different, this year’s the year,” Rallis said. “There’s not much I can say to them other than, come season time, we’ll be ready to go.”
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