MINNEAPOLIS — As University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill and a few of his players addressed the media Thursday in preparation for fall camp, the “B” word crept into the conversation from time to time.
Yes, this Gophers team that has finished 3-9 each of the past two seasons believes it can reach a bowl game in 2012.
“Anything short of that is a disappointment,” said junior safety Brock Vereen. “We want to be great. We’re working to be great.”
A three-win season is far from great, but the Gophers remain optimistic as they enter Kill’s second season as head coach. The players have raved about offseason workouts, crediting the strength and conditioning coaches for helping them get bigger and stronger in the winter and summer months.
Perhaps more important, however, is that these players are about to embark on their second year under Kill’s regime. Last year’s team had to learn a new system with new coaches and coordinators after Kill replaced Tim Brewster following a disappointing season in 2010. Now, Kill and his staff have been in place for more than a year, allowing for the players and coaches to grow accustomed to one another.
“When they came in (last year), they didn’t know what to expect from us, we didn’t know what to expect from them. It was exciting, but we were curious,” senior linebacker Mike Rallis said Thursday. “We didn’t know what to expect. We’ve all gotten comfortable with each other both ways. We’re expecting a lot more from ourselves this year.”
The Gophers’ fall camp officially opens Saturday with the team’s first practice, less than a full month from its first game Aug. 30 at UNLV. This time last year, Kill was tasked with helping Minnesota’s football program get back on track after several years of disappointment. But he was patient in his approach, routinely saying the program needed to be rebuilt on concrete, not sand.
A year later, Kill said that goal hasn’t changed.
“I think that we sold a strong vision a year ago of kind of where we wanted to go in the program,” he said Thursday. “I don’t think we’ve come off that. I think that probably the most important thing, I think, as a head coach or assistant coaches, our strength coaches, we’ve got the continuity. We didn’t lose any of that continuity, so the vision stayed the same. I think we’re just all much more comfortable with each other. The players, the coaches, and what we’re trying to accomplish is much better.”
Minnesota ended the 2011 season on a high note, beating Illinois, 27-7, at TCF Bank Stadium. It was one of just two Big Ten victories — the Gophers also beat Iowa earlier in the year — and was a rare bright spot in a season filled with growing pains.
That win brought the Gophers’ victory total to three, halfway to being bowl eligible. Eventually, Minnesota will need to reach a bowl game to show signs that Kill’s vision and the team’s work in the offseason are paying off.
The Gophers believe that could happen sooner rather than later.
“For one, ending the season the way we did, I felt like if we had more games after that, we would have been able to go to a bowl game. But unfortunately the season is only 12 games,” senior quarterback MarQueis Gray said. “Now that we’re gearing to start up, I feel like we’re capable of making a bowl game. I know our team is confident in their playing ability, and we’re going to see once we open up camp (Saturday).”
Much of the Gophers’ successes will rest of the right arm — and legs — of Gray, who is entering his second season as Minnesota’s starting quarterback. He spent his first two seasons at wide receiver but moved to quarterback for the 2011 season. Gray spent plenty of time this summer building chemistry with his wide receivers during offseason workouts.
This is a young squad with only 16 seniors — 10 of whom are on scholarship — on the 105-man roster. Last year’s team was young, too, and it also had the disadvantage of having to learn a new system and adjust to a new coaching staff.
“There were so many ups and downs last year,” Vereen said. “Sometimes going into the locker room, you didn’t know which Gophers you were going to get on Saturday. This offseason, talking to Coach Kill, everybody has a great feeling. Everybody’s optimistic and we’re ready to go.”
That optimism has the Gophers players saying the “B” word. Kill wouldn’t quite go as far as to guarantee a trip to a bowl game, but he did use another “B” word when asked for what would make this year a success.
“We’ve got to move the program forward and continue to get better,” Kill said. “As long as we continue to make strides to get better and continue to build a foundation of the program and move it forward, that is what we’re here to do. Again, nothing is a quick fix. It takes time. I’m cautiously optimistic of the way our kids are working. …
“It’s kind of like anything, you talk about all the things here, but it’s what you do when you go play. I’m looking forward to watching our kids play and prove that they’re better.”