After Saturday’s spring football practice, head coach Jerry Kill delayed talking to the media for about a half hour.
It wasn’t intentional. He was too busy talking to some of the 200 or so fans that came to watch because, after all, it’s their football team, he said.
That’s the same reason the first-year coach is sending a signed letter to every fan who comes to a spring practice.
“I appreciate the support. It’s their team,” Kill said. “I try to do as good a job to let people know I appreciate it.”
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 won’t shy away from calling players out. The players also don’t want to be singled out for not giving Kill’s system a chance.
“Everybody realizes coach Kill is about his business,” defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite said. “Either you on the train or you not.”
Duane Bennett is on the train. The soon-to-be-senior running back threw a block Saturday that made Kill yell, “That’s not a good play. That’s a great play!”
Bennett will likely fit Kill’s 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 — and increasing speed of practice — don’t bother the players, who are just hoping to improve on a 3-9 season.
“We’re buying in a lot more than we did last year to the offense,” tight end Eric Lair said. “Coach Kill made us believe in what we’re talking about.”
Most players have had their share of blunders through the first three practices, but some have shone through with strong play.
Receiver Da’Jon McKnight could be the Gophers’ best player next season. Last year’s 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 aren’t open, he takes off down the field. And when he’s running, few people can catch him.
When the Gophers practice in full pads for the first time Tuesday, Kill will see whether Gray’s 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 hasn’t lost any speed. The Gophers had just eight sacks last season — worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision — 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 doesn’t care as long as he’s on board now.
“I can’t control what’s happened in the past,” Kill said. “I’m going forward and either you get on with it or not.”