Jerry Kill’s coaching staff gaining comfort, confidence at Minnesota

This is the eleventh in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.

TODAY’S POSITION: COACHES

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6.5

Head coach: Jerry Kill (third year), 9-16 overall record

Coordinators: Matt Limegrover, offense, (third year), Tracy Claeys, defense, (third year)

Position coaches: Bill Miller, linebackers (third year); Brian Anderson, running backs (third year); Jeff Phelps, defensive line (third year); Pat Poore, wide receivers (third season); Rob Reeves, tight ends (third season); Jay Sawvel, defensive backs/special teams (third season); Jim Zebrowski, quarterbacks (third season)

From the top down: Historically speaking, the third year has been the charm for Jerry Kill at each of his previous stops along the way. While coaching Southern Illinois, Kill’s teams went from 1-10 in 2001 to 4-8 in 2002 to 10-2 and a berth in the FCS playoffs in year three in 2003. A similar trend occurred with Kill and his Northern Illinois teams, which went from 6-7 to 7-6 to 10-3 in Kill’s three years there.

The Gophers made progress from Kill’s first season to second season, winning six games and advancing to a bowl game for the first time since 2009. Players seemed to buy into Kill’s system and his style of coaching after his inaugural season in 2011. Now most of the players on Kill’s roster have spent two full seasons with him, so the comfort level is there. The Gophers know what to expect from Kill and vice versa.

Since he first took the job, Kill has preached patience as he tries to rebuild a tattered Minnesota program. That patience has had to come from his players, from Gophers fans, and from Kill himself. After two years of the Kill Era, that patience seems to be paying off.

A big positive Kill has going for him is the continuity of his staff. Most of his coaches have been with him since the beginning. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with Kill since 1995 when they coached together at Saginaw Valley State, while offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover joined him in 1999 as the offensive line coach at Emporia State.

Aside from the two coordinators, several other coaches have been by Kill’s side since before he took the job at Minnesota. Anderson joined Kill at Southern Illinois in 2001. Phelps has been an assistant for Kill since 2008, Kill’s first year at Northern Illinois. Poore and Kill have worked together since 2001.

You get the picture. Kill is a loyal coach, and that’s resulted in a staff that has stuck together over the years despite several location changes.

During his first season at Minnesota, Kill suffered a seizure on the sidelines of a Gophers’ game at TCF Bank Stadium. Since then, his seizure disorder has been well-documented. A cancer survivor, Kill has suffered less-publicized seizures since that incident. Those outside the program continue to question Kill about his health, but the third-year Gophers coach insists that he’s fine and doesn’t let it become a distraction.

“I’m doing great. I appreciate you asking,” Kill said at the Big Ten’s media day in Chicago earlier this month. “Things are going great for me. And I’ve got a great doctor that is a specialist in epilepsy. … I may not look like it, but I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life, so I’m looking forward to the season.”

Rising star: Minnesota’s secondary saw a big leap in production from 2011 to 2012, and Sawvel has plenty to do with that. The third-year defensive backs coach also leads the Gophers’ special teams, but he receives most of the credit for a Minnesota defense that yielded the fourth-fewest passing yards per game last year. Like most of Kill’s coaches, Sawvel has been with Kill for quite some time, dating back to 2001 when he was the defensive backs and special teams coach. He held those same titles for three years at Northern Illinois before following Kill to Minnesota.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State 2. Northwestern 3. Michigan State

Urban Meyer took the Big Ten by storm last year, guiding the Buckeyes to a perfect 12-0 record in his first season at the helm. Unfortunately for Meyer, Ohio State was ineligible for postseason play; otherwise the Buckeyes would have likely played in the national championship game. But OSU has regained eligibility for the 2013 season and is a favorite to win the Big Ten under Meyer, who brings two national championships with him to Columbus.

Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald continues to guide the Wildcats in the right direction. They finished 10-3 last season and beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. That’s quite the jump from 2011, when Northwestern finished 6-7. At just 38 years old, Fitzgerald is already the second-longest tenured head coach in the Big Ten as he enters his eighth season.

In his six seasons at Michigan State, head coach Mark Dantonio’s teams have won at least six games each year. Following an 11-3 finish in 2011, MSU took a bit of a dip last year and finished 7-6 and fourth place in the Big Ten Legends division. Dantonio is entering his seventh season at MSU.

Kill on his third year at Minnesota: “I feel pretty much like probably somewhere between my second and third year at Northern and Southern Illinois. … I’d say pretty much like our second year at Northern Illinois. I feel good about the shift in what the kids are doing. … I think they have worked hard. It all starts academically and it all starts with being able to keep the players eligible, all those kind of things. There’s a lot more to it than football. We’ve taken great strides in that. We won more games last year, went to a bowl game. What’s the next step? The next step is we need to keep climbing the mountain. We need to keep getting better.”

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