MINNEAPOLIS — As Jerry Kill gave his press conference Tuesday to kick off fall camp, the third-year Gophers football coach mentioned leadership of the team on more than one occasion.
A name that kept coming up: senior linebacker Aaron Hill, whom Kill raved about Tuesday as a leader not only on defense but for the entire team entering the 2013 season.
“I would tell you our strongest leader on the defensive side of the football has done a great job with our players this summer is in our linebacking crew,” Kill said. “Aaron Hill’s done a great job. We expect great things. I think Aaron’s going to have a tremendous year. We’re excited about him.”
Hill is one of only a few linebackers returning this year that have any substantial playing experience. He played in all 13 games for the Gophers last year, including 11 starts. Minnesota loses two key pieces from last year’s linebacker corps in Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis, who anchored the defense and both served as team leaders.
Outside of Hill, Minnesota lacks experience at linebacker. Still, Kill feels good about that group as a whole as fall camp is set to begin on Friday.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do in two-a-day camp, teaching and getting those kids ready,” Kill said. “But I’m optimistic about that group and the work they’ve put in and the strength level and the speed level.”
Kill also mentioned the names of several other linebackers who could make an impact this year, including James Manuel, Jack Lynn and Damien Wilson. Lynn, a redshirt freshman, and Wilson, a junior college transfer, were “neck and neck” in spring ball, Kill said, at the middle linebacker spot. It’s likely that one of them will take over in the middle, a spot that was held down by Rallis last year. Manuel, meanwhile, played in all 13 games last year and could start at outside linebacker, opposite of Hill.
“I think we may have more depth than we think. We’ve just got to get out there and, No. 1, stay healthy at that position. Athletically, we’re gifted there. We’ve just got to coach them up, so to speak. We’ve basically got two guys with a whole lot of experience and the others will have to learn.”
Hageman adjusting to added attention — on and off the field: As a 6-foot-6, 311-pound defensive lineman, Gophers senior Ra’Shede Hageman is hard to miss. Last season as a junior, Hageman began demanding more double teams from opposing offenses.
He doesn’t expect that to change this year after he had six sacks and 7 ½ tackles for loss last year as an imposing force on the Gophers’ defensive line.
“I feel like there’s going to be a lot of teams that are really going to focus on me, so the fact that if they focus on me, it might ease up the other players a little bit,” Hageman said Tuesday. “It’s part of football. Double teams are always a hard thing to do, but I just have to be in there and take care of it.”
Hageman has began receiving added attention off the field, too, thanks to his production on the field.
He was one of three Minnesota players — along with running back Donnell Kirkwood and safety Brock Vereen — to represent the Gophers at the Big Ten’s media day in Chicago last week. As he continues toward his goal of playing in the NFL, Hageman knows more eyes will be following what he does off the field.
Not known as particularly outgoing, this extra attention is something Hageman has had to adjust to.
“The cameras and everything in front of my face, it’s still kind of hard to get used to,” he said. “I’m just more excited going through camp, because that’s one thing I’m good at. The cameras and microphones will always be there. I can always practice that, but this is my last year playing (college) football so I figure I need to focus on that.”
Injury update: After being plagued by injuries in 2012, the Gophers are relatively healthy entering fall camp — with a few exceptions, of course.
Offensive lineman Jonah Pirsig was injured in spring camp and Kill said the Gophers haven’t yet made a decision on whether he’ll participate at the beginning of fall practices. If Pirsig does join the team at the start, Kill said he won’t be at “full tilt” initially.
“Right now, we’re leaning towards bringing him in so we can work on particular things,” Kill said. “Hopefully that’ll work out.”
Freshman linebacker Chris Wipson missed part of his senior year at Wayzata High School due to a knee injury, but Kill said he’s on track to open camp. Senior defensive lineman Roland Johnson is also good to go for Friday’s first practice after suffering a knee injury last year. He had surgery on his ACL after he played in the first 10 games. Marcus Jones, who transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback, will also be active for the start of camp after coming off a knee injury last year.
“That’s the key to success is being healthy,” Kill said. “We played pretty well in the Texas Tech game, but that was the first time probably we’ve been healthy since the first couple weeks of the season.”