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Updated: October 15th, 2013 6:56pm
For now, Tracy Claeys, Gophers moving on without Jerry Kill

For now, Tracy Claeys, Gophers moving on without Jerry Kill

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A sour start to Big Ten play and a desperately needed bye week now behind them, the Minnesota Gophers are moving on, setting their aim on a major road test Saturday at Northwestern.

But as the Gophers regroup and continue the search for a way to jolt refreshed life into their season, they are doing so in the absence of the man who is the cornerstone of the rebuilding program.

Jerry Kill remains on indefinite leave after deciding last Thursday to take a temporary step back from his head coaching duties to focus on his ongoing battle with epilepsy. In his place is his longtime friend and assistant coach, Tracy Claeys, the Gophers' unassuming defensive coordinator-turned-acting head coach.

There is no timetable on when Kill could return, but as of Tuesday he is expected to miss at least Saturday's game.

After his fifth documented game-day seizure in the last three years prevented him from coaching in the Gophers' Oct. 12 loss to Michigan, Kill made the difficult to decision to pursue extensive treatment in the hopes of finding some way to quell the continual problems his form of epilepsy has caused.

In the meantime, Kill has stayed in touch with Claeys and his team primarily through his wife Rebecca. For as hard as it has been for the always locked-in coach, Kill has kept his distance and focus away from football momentarily.

It wasn't until Monday night that Claeys received a welcomed call from Kill, who wanted to hear the latest on the team and discuss how they intend to counter a highly dangerous Northwestern squad.

"He's feeling good," Claeys said. "I don't anticipate him being at the game at this time, but we'll just have to see what happens. It was good to talk football with him."

For the moment, Tracy Claeys has a new title, and a new spot on game-day -- on the sidelines instead of his comfortable seat in the press box. But the changes have done very little to alter his typical low-key, straightforward demeanor.

Claeys was at ease as he sat in a front of a microphone Tuesday, handling the weekly press conference duties usually reserved for Kill, showing no signs of a break in his usual game-week routine.

Regardless of what Kill's future may hold, the Gophers don't have time to debate the long-term status of their head coach.. That understanding seems to be well grounded for Kill, Claeys and the rest of the team.

Claeys made one thing clear: "It's Jerry Kill's program. It will always be his program."

"With coach, the thing that we can't replace is he's a good friend and great fan of the kids," Claeys said. That's where we miss him, having him around on the practice field. But we've had to do it before as a staff and I feel very comfortable and very confident.''

The Gophers are at a critical juncture in their season. At 0-2 in the conference and a schedule that makes relief appear hard to be found, the room for error is closing rapidly. Bowl eligibility is still two wins away, and at least three are needed to better their total from the last four seasons.

The challenge is obvious. With match-ups against Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State also on tap, Minnesota has been relegated to an underdog role from here on out.

Kill has been away from the team for a week-and-a-half, but his influence is still obvious, with players expressing a desire to rally for their third-year coach.

"There might have been shock early on, but we're happy for him," senior safety Brock Vereen said, recalling the team's reaction when they first heard the news about Kill.

"He's more than a coach. He's a second father to most of us. We know that this is the best thing for him ... Long-term stability is more welcoming than anything, so we are in full support of what he is doing right now"

The challenge of redirecting their season is undoubtedly much more daunting with Kill absent. But for Kill to have the time needed to finally find the long-term solution he and his family have endlessly craved, the Gophers have no choice but to go on without him for now.

Will Kill be able to bear watching from afar come Saturday?

"That's a good question," Claeys said with a laugh. "I didn't ask him at all. I've known him a long time and I can't answer that. I don't know if he could sit there and watch it or not, or go for his walk along the river and find out what happened later."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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