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Minnesota seeks vast improvement in Kill’s second season

By Fred Mitchell, Chicago Tribune –

Jerry Kill made his reputation as a college football coach resuscitating dormant programs at Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.

The stage is much bigger, and perhaps more imposing for Kill now in his second year in the Big Ten at Minnesota. But his steady and proven method remains familiar.

The Gophers finished 3-9, 2-6 in the conference last season, winning their last game of the season against Illinois. More victories are expected in his second year with 13 starters returning — seven on offense and six on defense. Kill demanded that his players spend more offseason time in the weight room, improve their academic standing and focus on becoming better teammates.

“We’ve added about 36 new players,” Kill said. “We’re in a huge transition but a positive one. … We’re a bigger, stronger, faster team than we were a year ago.”

Quarterback MarQueis Gray, a dual-threat 6-foot-4, 250-pounder, passed for 1,495 yards and eight touchdowns. The senior also rushed for 966 net yards and ran for six touchdowns

“He has come a long way,” Kill said. “He’s an exciting player to watch. We need to get people around him. MarQueis has improved so much (and) I look for him to get much better.”

Kill was able to land some talented recruits to improve overall team speed and quickness. Kill admits, however, that his overall squad remains a work-in-progress.

“We have to get receivers and running backs and people who can step up and make plays,” Kill said. “We’ve worked hard in recruiting to do that. Some of the kids we had a year ago are a year older and they have to step up and make some plays. Some of those young people did that in the spring.”

Back-to-back 3-9 seasons have created a sense of urgency for Minnesota to qualify for a bowl.

Finding offensive playmakers to complement Gray will be critical.

Senior receiver Brandon Green (15 catches, one touchdown) from Robeson High School returns. Running back James Gillum Jr. was recruited from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He is competing with sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, David Cobb and Devon Wright.

Firming up a defense to keep the Gophers in games also is a priority. Minnesota forced just nine turnovers last season, worst among the 120 major programs. They allowed 31.7 points per game, including a 58-0 shellacking by Michigan.

James Manuel (6-2, 210) has been switched from safety to linebacker. Safety Brock Vereen and middle linebacker Mike Rallis will be counted on to make big plays.

Kill, who turns 50 on Friday, says he has lost some weight and his health is good after suffering a seizure on the sideline Sept. 10 game against New Mexico State. Two weeks later he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic after suffering another seizure.

“I’m doing fantastic,” Kill said.

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