CHICAGO — Everywhere Jerry Kill has worked as a head coach, he’s left the program better than when he arrived: Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois. Generally speaking, the wins increased year over year, and expectations changed from being simply respectable to becoming something special.
The year over year change has been no different in Kill’s fifth head coaching stop at Minnesota. From three wins to six to eight, the Gophers have improved across the board and made themselves a team not to be overlooked in the Big Ten.
But the turnaround is never complete as long as Kill is in charge. And as he approaches Year 4 of his tenure with the Gophers, the question now is: Just how good can Minnesota truly be?
"When we came back from our bowl game and we had a team meeting, I shared with our kids: Right now you should be starving," Kill said. "We made some great strides last year. We did some good things. We’ve done some things that hadn’t been done for a while. I think we kind of set the tone in our third year, and now we have to take it another step."
What "another step" means is unknown at this point: Beating border rivals Iowa and Wisconsin? Winning a bowl game? Winning the Big Ten West? Ask players, however, and the answer is simple: Why not all of the above?
"The next step would be win 10 or 11 games," Gophers running back David Cobb said. "I think that’s all realistic, coming from the program. Everybody in the program, we want to go 12-0. We’re not saying that just to be unrealistic. We think that’s a realistic goal. Every team on our schedule we feel like we can beat. And we feel like we’re as good as any team in the Big Ten.
"The next step for us is to win more than eight games. And of course you don’t want to end the season with a sour taste in your mouth like we did this year. And we won’t. That won’t happen to us again."
Minnesota finished last season 8-5, winning eight games for the first time since 2003. The Gophers also defeated Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State in consecutive weeks to stand 8-2 overall and 4-2 in Big Ten play with two weeks remaining. But Minnesota faltered down the stretch with losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State before dropping its bowl game against Syracuse.
Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism in Minneapolis and around the state. Quarterback Mitch Leidner’s development is key to the team’s success. A year ago, he completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 619 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while sharing reps with Phillip Nelson. But this will be Leidner’s team in 2014, and his accuracy and confidence should be improved.
Kill said creating defined roles before the season begins and sticking to it — such as Leidner starting and Chris Streveler being the backup — is paramount.
"We established that," Kill said. "And I think when you know you’re going to be the guy, it’s a little bit different. Mitch has spent a lot of time with the receivers. And we know we’ve got to do a good job when we start seeing eight, nine people in the box and you’ve got to be able to throw the ball downfield and make some catches. But we also have improved our receiving corps. And sometimes the receiver can make a quarterback look good."
Minnesota also likely will rely heavily on its ability to run the football. The Gophers ran on 68.6 percent of their plays last season, and with running backs Cobb, Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood all back, the trend could continue. Cobb led the team in rushing yards (1,202) and scored seven touchdowns, while Williams added 332 yards with three touchdowns and Kirkwood 120 yards. Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards is another player to watch in the backfield. He had the longest rush of the team’s spring game on a 33-yard touchdown run.
Defensively, Minnesota loses NFL Draft picks Ra’Shede Hageman (38 tackles, team-high 13 tackles for loss) and Brock Vereen (59 tackles). Still, the Gophers return three of their top four tacklers: defensive back Cedric Thompson (79 tackles), linebacker Damien Wilson (78 tackles) and defensive back Antonio Johnson (69 tackles), as well as defensive back Eric Murray (52 tackles).
"Everybody says we want to win the Big Ten championship, which is obviously true," Thompson said. "Nobody is going to come in here and say we don’t want to win the Big Ten championship. What we’ve done this year so far is that no matter what you do, every day you come and give everything you have. If you do that now, when the season comes, it’s going to be much easier."
Continuing a wave of success certainly won’t come easily in 2014. Minnesota was picked to finish fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West, behind Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern. The Gophers open conference play at perennial power Michigan and then play host to Northwestern. They also close the season with games against Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska — the last two of which come on the road.
Will the ominous schedule prove too much for an improved Minnesota team to overcome? That is a question only Kill and his players can answer. But the general direction of the program in Year 4 is trending upwards.
"I think there’s no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year," Kill said. "We won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten, if you don’t have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?
"Our kids, they’re like anybody else. It’s a new season and that’s our mission statement, and the same way last year. But we have to build on what we did a year ago and continue to make progress."