An annual feature of the Big Ten Kickoff media sessions is an across-the-board sense of optimism that seems to permeate the conference. All 12 teams are undefeated, injuries have yet to rear their ugly head and the possibilities for a successful season are alive and well in every corner of Big Ten Country.
Ahead of his second campaign at Minnesota, head coach Jerry Kill took time out to address the Big Ten media in Chicago Thursday and said he is beginning to feel more comfortable with the direction of his program.
There's been dramatic change in both the composition and make-up of the Gophers since their season-ending victory over Illinois. But Kill sees this transition as a positive and said there is a genuine excitement among the players and staff about the upcoming campaign.
"Going into our second year here at Minnesota, we're excited about our program, which I imagine all the coaches are throughout the country at this time of year," Kill said. "I certainly feel like we've taken great strides in our program.
"Our kids, from the day we ended up our last game of the season to now, I think are excited about where they're at. I think we're in a huge transition but a positive one, and our kids have been through some adversity, some tragedy through the past year. I think it's brought us closer together. They've handled things very well and worked very hard. I think we're a bigger, stronger, faster team than we were a year ago, and we're looking forward to seeing what we can do."
One of the areas cited by Kill was the Gophers offensive line. Injuries forced Minnesota to play a number of combinations up front last season, which hampered the unit's ability to gel. That experience, however, along with a heavy dose of offseason work in the weight room, should pay dividends in 2012.
"(W)e played eight offensive linemen last year," said Kill. "I would say per person, we've put on probably 15 to 20 pounds in the offseason. I think that group's a lot more confident about their strength level and where they're at in getting ready for our season. We look to be much improved from a year ago. I think we've added depth to that (group), and we're very optimistic about how they'll perform."
Kill also said that he expects the performance of quarterback MarQueis Gray to move to another level. With a year of experience as the Gophers' main signal-caller under his belt, Kill believes Gray will be one of the nation's most exciting quarterbacks. The key thing, according to Kill, will be who emerges around the 6-foot-4 senior.
"I think our big deal is we need to get people around (Gray)," Kill said. "We've got to get receivers and running backs and people that can step up and make plays. We've worked hard in recruiting to do that. Some of the kids that we had a year ago are a year older and they have to step up and make some plays. MarQueis has improved so much that I think the most important thing to our football team is what the people around him do."
As much as anything, however, Kill says that just having a year together in the program may be the biggest factor for the Gophers in 2012. There's a comfort level about expectations that did not necessarily exist last season and a lot has been learned since the coach and his staff arrived at Minnesota.
"I think we found out a lot about who we were as a football team," Kill said. "Our coaching staff has been together a long time - been through a lot of things together. I think that's why we're excited. I think we've seen a group of kids that really want to be at the University of Minnesota. We've added some kids to it. And we're enjoying the process.
"We've been through this before at other places, and we really feel like we're jump-started and moving forward in our program and certainly feel we'll be better than we were a year ago."
Tag(s): Gopher Football