MINNEAPOLIS — Donnell Kirkwood used to be, as he puts it, a hothead.
It’s the mindset Minnesota’s senior running back used in boring his way to 958 yards rushing last season, often dragging defenders an injury-maligned offensive line couldn’t handle.
But it’s also the attitude that led to frequent fall-camp dust-ups, most often with defensive tackle and fellow team leader Ra’Shede Hageman.
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“Me and him go at it every practice,” Kirkwood said Saturday during the Gophers’ final preseason press conference inside the Gibson-Nagurski Complex. “Last year, if he were to do something, I probably would’ve thrown the ball at him, something like that.”
Two-a-day scrums weren’t at all limited to the pair of returning pillars during Jerry Kill’s first two Augusts as head coach. His first season, in 2011, something close to an all-out brawl erupted almost every day, Kirkwood said. Last year, the team mixed it up less but still engaged in 10 or so fights.
They’re football players. At Minnesota, no less, where every day is a dogfight for Big Ten and national respectability.
They were motivated. Angry. Out to prove something.
None of that moxie has disappeared, players say, but year three of the Kill era has become as much about harnessing and making more productive use of it as it has filling holes on defense or picking a starting quarterback.
Throughout nearly a month of fall camp, their coach liked what he saw.
“I can’t sit here and say we had a really bad practice or the kids haven’t been focused or anything like that,” Kill said. “They really have.”
There aren’t a whole lot of coaches around the country that can say that, at least not honestly.
Since the spring, a team with 16 returning starters — nine on offense — and 54 letterwinners back in the fold has offered its game experience and depth as evidence it’s out for more than just a .500 finish and a bowl appearance. But without a good dose of maturity, snaps received are nothing more than a number on a participation chart.
The Gophers have it this year, Kirkwood said.
“It’s like, ‘Let things go and move on to bigger and better things,'” said the 5-foot-10, 223-pound bruiser. “We now know that as a team, we’re getting more mature as men, as well. (Coach Kill) has taught us that, too.”
It didn’t happen overnight.
When Kill and his staff of longtime assistants took over before the 2011 season, many players struggled to adjust. The men that had recruited them, promised their families they’d be watching over them for the next four years, were gone.
New schemes, new assignments, new locker-room protocols, new social and academic rules — headstrong college kids who smash their bodies into each other for an education don’t always embrace change immediately.
“Coach Kill knows that it’s tough to come in as a new coach and start a new system and expect everybody to believe in it,” Kirkwood said. “I’ve got to believe in somebody else? Is he gonna leave after a year if they’re not successful? He knows it’s hard, but once after you see what he’s trying to do with everything he’s done for us as players, you don’t have no choice but to trust in the man.”
Trusting and buying in aided Minnesota’s turnaround from three wins in 2011 to six and a Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas bid last season. Solid performances in that game paved the way for an enthusiastic offseason, one that ends Thursday when the Gophers host UNLV.
According to Kill, the progression of reconstructing a program that hasn’t won a conference title since 1967 is on track.
Not that the down-home, Kansas-bred head coach, who turned 52 on Saturday, is satisfied.
“I would tell you that right now in our program, in every single phase, we’re farther along than where we were a year ago, but what’s that mean?” Kill said. “Everybody else is, too. It’s not like Indiana, they’re not working, or Northwestern or Michigan or Michigan State. Everybody’s striving to get better, but we’ve gotten better. Our expectation is to be better than we were a year ago, and our kids certainly feel that way.”
How much better? Different athletes offer different responses.
For Kirkwood, it’s improving an offense that ranked 108th nationally last year. It’ll start and end with quarterback Philip Nelson, who started seven games last year as a true freshman — with mixed results — and retained the starting job with a strong fall camp.
“I don’t know a number for you,” Kirkwood said, “but we will be better, definitely.”
On defense, stopping the run and relying on an experienced defensive backfield is central, Hageman said. Minnesota ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rush defense last year, allowing 172 yards per game.
“You can have all the tools in the shed,” Hageman said, “but if you can’t stop the run, then you don’t get a chance to stop the pass.”
The Gophers receive their first test Thursday night at the first home opener in TCF Bank Stadium history. It will be hot — around 90 degrees for a 6 p.m. kickoff. It will be different — Minnesota is the only major-conference team to open on the road the past four years, and about 45,000 spectators are expected as students file back onto campus for the start of classes the following week. It will require adjustments — UNLV has first-year coordinators on both sides of the ball, and Kill has said he’s not exactly sure what to expect in terms of formations, play calls and tempo.
There’s a Twins game that afternoon, a Vikings preseason contest that night, and a nationally-renowned state fair in full swing.
“We better take care of our jobs to get our football team ready and get focused and be a huge part of the celebration here in the Twin Cities,” Kill said. “We certainly don’t want to be the group that doesn’t do their part.”
Picked last in the Legends Division in a preseason media poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and accustomed to playing second fiddle to other sports and entertainment events in the Minneapolis metro area, the Gophers still plan to operate with considerable surliness.But another year to grow up has them confident they can use it more efficiently.
“We know we aren’t a team that many people are circling, that they’re worried about necessarily, but that’s the perfect position to be,” safety Brock Vereen said. “We wouldn’t want that any other way. We want to be overlooked, we want to be underrated, then come game time, we’ll show who we are.”