Q&A with Gophers OC Matt Limegrover: 'MarQueis (Gray) has the tools'
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When new Gophers football coach Jerry Kill walked into his palatial office on the second floor of the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex for the first time, he had a request.
While the spacious bathroom with a shower is nice, he wanted to make sure that there was room for him to dress and interact in the assistant coaches' locker room.
That's the kind of guy Kill is, and it makes him significantly different from his two immediate predecessors, Glen Mason and Tim Brewster.
According to insiders, there was constantly a feel of uneasiness under Mason and Brewster. A negative vibe existed.
While camaraderie among the coaching staff ultimately may have little to do with wins and losses, Kill firmly believes cohesion is a giant necessity. It is reflected by the number of coaches who followed him from Northern Illinois (eight). They genuinely enjoy working for and, more so, with Kill.
One of those coaches is offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, with whom I sat with for 30 minutes last week.
- So, you lose the Mid-American Conference championship game ... you're recovering from that loss, a game you were supposed to win ... and the next thing you know, you find out you're coming here. It had to be a whirlwind experience.
ML: Without a doubt. I still wake up and go 'wait a minute now, where am I?' I have to think about it because it's not supposed to happen that way. It doesn't happen that way all the time. It was really incredible. It was a just a complete whirlwind. I was talking about it the other day. Tracy (Claeys) and I were literally here for about 24 hours before we had recruits on campus for a recruiting weekend. We were learning right along with the recruits, trying to get to know the hosts' names and the recruits' name. It's crazy trying to live out of a hotel and with being in the heat of recruiting right now, but it's also the nature of it. Fortunately, it is not the first time that we've had to do it or have had to do it as a group. So, I think the byproduct of it is that as crazy as it could have been that part was lessened because we've all done it together. There is a core of guys who for some of us it's the fourth time we've done it together, with most of its third time. We kind of knew what needed to be done and what needed to happen, so I think that lessened it a little bit. But it has been pretty crazy to say the least.
- It's not just the coaches. It's the families too. When you told your wife, 'Hey, we're moving to Minnesota,' what was her reaction?
ML: It was kind of drop-jaw, what-are-you-talking-about-type reaction. The move from Carbondale and Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois for me particularly was pretty good for me because my wife is from that area and has a lot of family there, so that worked out very well. But then to say we're going six hours away, initially that set her aback. The great thing is that the wives, after the initial shock kind of sets in of you're moving, you're disrupting things, then the great excitement sets in of what a great opportunity it is. Really in a lot of respects it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they realize that and understand it. Once everybody started looking into the Twin Cities and everything that the area has to offer, I know my wife was incredibly excited. She's already brought the kids. They didn't want to see me. They went straight to the Mall of America. So, I had to go down there to see them. They are real excited. And that is a big part of it, to know that they are chomping at the bit to get up here and to get going with things because it makes you feel a little bit better about the decision you made.
- What do you now know about this job that you didn't know six weeks ago?
ML: What a great academic school Minnesota is. I knew of Northwestern's reputation and you hear about Purdue being an engineering school. But when I got here and we started talking about walk-ons coming, I figured it would be like most state schools, open up the doors and whoever you can get that is a pretty good football player and as long as they're NCAA qualifier, let's bring them in. But that 's not the case. I was really taken aback in a good way because of that because it show you how serious everybody takes education and what a big deal the academics are. So, that has been a real nice surprise because that's a great selling point. When you get right down to it the majority of kids you recruit, being able to give them a picture of a strong academic institution, that is important to them. Everyday I learn a little more about the University and everything I've learned has been great.
- Are there any academic limitations holding you back?
ML: I think the important thing is that it is not going to be difficult, but we've got to do a great job in the evaluation process in making sure that the ones that are perceived as high-risk or at the lower end of the spectrum, that those are also the guys that we feel are the ones that can do it and can make it. Because not every kid that gets in, even if it is someone who is a highly recruited young man, is going to be successful once they get here. There's got to be something more to it and I think that is something that has always been a big strength of coach Kill's. It is not simply 'Hey, how does he look on film? Ok, let's recruit him.' We go to the school, we talk with guidance counselors, we talk with teachers, we get to know the young man's family or lack of family and who his support group is. And I think that is important, because if you bring in just football players they are going to fail and then your whole program is going to fail. You've got to take it to that next level and make sure all the time you put into recruiting you want get something out of that by keeping them around. Not just barely eligible, scraping by, but on path to have success.
- It raises the question, are you a better coach or better recruiter?
ML: I like to think that I'm pretty good at both, but I think that I'm probably a better coach than recruiter. I think there are guys on our staff that are outstanding recruiters and very good coaches. That is what I am excited about. With a little bit of the tweaking coach Kill did when this staff was put together -- some of the guys who came, some of the additions that were made -- I think there is a great balance between the two. There is nobody on our staff that can't recruit and there is nobody on our staff that can't coach. But now you take that and kind of put those two levels on it, there are definitely some who fit a niche more on the one end than the other. I guess now that coach Kill is keeping me off the road he is probably telling me something, there are lot better recruiters on the staff than me (laughs). But if that means he thinks I'm a better coach, than that's the sacrifice you make.
- Does MarQueis Gray excite you?
ML: Oh yeah, absolutely. We knew about MarQueis when we were at Northern Illinois and coach Phelps came back and said 'You guys can watch this (high school highlights), because we have no chance at him.' The great thing about it is that he is hungry. He had a lot of accolades coming in. I think his career hasn't been what he first envisioned. He's had some success, but I think he wants to have success as a quarterback. That is a good spot for us as coaches, because at this point he knows "Hey, I can't expect anything. I can't assume anything.' I'm going to have to work this out if I want to get to where I want to be as a quarterback. Having a young man with that much talent and having a little chip on his shoulder and a little hunger to not just survive, but to thrive is pretty exciting. He's already shown that he is willing to do whatever it takes to learn the offense and to be our guy.
- Is he your clear-cut starting quarterback when you guys open against USC?
ML: Absolutely not, because there is still a lot to it. Just because a young man is committed to doing what he needs to win the job and learn the offense doesn't automatically mean that will happen. If it gets to the point where there are some limitation with his ability to learn the offense and someone learns it better and puts us in a better situation to go beat USC, that individual will be the one taking snaps in September. I think right now MarQueis is a guy that has the tools. The physical part is there. Now we will see how the development goes -- his relationship with our quarterbacks coach, how the spring (goes), how that develops into the summer. It's wide open. Every position on this football team is wide open, because the players are all new to us and we are all new to them. And MarQueis is no different. Now he's got a leg up because he's wonderfully gifted athletically, but that is only one part of the equation. That will be something that really bears its self out in the next several months.
- The way your quarterback operates, could we look at (Northern Illinois quarterback) Chandler Harnish and the way you used him the last couple of years as what we can envision the Gophers' QB will look like?
ML: We're not going to significantly change here. We're going to run the football. One of the things I think we did better as the years went on at Northern was that we got better in the basics and the fundamentals of being able to run the football and protecting the quarterback. Obviously, that made the quarterback that much better because of the strain you take off him. I think we'll end up taking those kind of baby steps. We've got to be able to establish the running game and be physical in the run game. And make sure when we do throw the football that it's not out of an empty set with receivers running 60 yard fade routes with us not protecting the quarterback. He's got to feel good back there and that comes a lot with making sure that we're putting him in that good situation, whoever that may be. That's a challenge, but I like the stable of running backs we have. I think it's a good group to be able to establish a running attack. That by no means means we'll be conservative. There are a lot of things you can do without putting your quarterback in a bind. We've learned that over the couple of years, especially with a kid like Chandler Harnish. I would say it will be very similar but we're going to have to make sure we take care of business in the fundamentals before we get too exotic.
- You're right about the stable of running backs. You have a lot of options. Do you rely ultimately on one guy and have one of those guys clearly establish himself? Or will you use that three- or even four-headed monster?
ML: We definitely will (use multiple RBs). That's something that we didn't want to use Chad Spann (Northern Illinois' RB) as much as we did. The nice thing was that we would get to the end of the game and say 'Man, he carried it 28 times.' But it didn't feel that way, because he had geared himself up over the course of a couple of years. We didn't do that the year before. He still was a 1,000 yard rusher, but we shared carries between three guys. And that really is the way I think it needs to be. With that group of running backs it's hard to say that there is going to be one guy and one guy only. I think we'll be a three, four-headed monster. Chad got the majority of carries, but we were able to find a young man named Ricky Crider who became our third-down back. He got us some good yards running the ball, but was also great in pass protection and he could catch the football. That became his niche. If you find one you still need to find another to complement him. Even though Chad had the majority of the carries, the number of plays was not as much as you would think.
- How good is Da'Jon McKnight?
ML: He is very good. He is a guy that, within your offense, you find ways to get him the football. I'm hoping that Brandon Green (Gophers WR) is healthy. We knew about him way back when he was at Rosetown High School in Chicago. He was another player that we knew about, but knew we had no chance to get. I think we have a couple of guys that could be good as anybody in the conference. So, now you have some legitimate big play threats and you couple that with a dynamic quarterback and the run game, now you're getting to the point that you can kind of expand things and we can spread the field a little bit more than you would if you were a one-headed monster. Da'Jon and Brandon, and really that whole group of receivers, they need to come on in a good way and a quick way for us. And they will. I think it is a group that will do well.
- Expand a little bit on Brandon. He showed flashes a couple of years ago, but then was injured. Will he be ready for spring ball?
ML: When you come into a new situation your hope is that you can get your best players on the field for as many plays as you can. And I think the spring is important to see how healthy he is and how much he can do. That will kind of be the template for the season. If it is a situation where he just can't make it through spring, then we will just have to move forward starting in the fall. If it is situation where we have to be really careful with what we do with him then that is also something that we will know. We'll use spring in that sense as a dress rehearsal. It comes down to how much he can do and how much that body and that knee will be able to withstand and we'll know if we'll have to adjust from there.
- With your offensive line, blocking scheme-wise, how will you be different from the previous regime?
ML: We are not very complicated upfront. That is the biggest thing I told the offensive lineman. There is a good thing about your offensive coordinator being the offensive line coach. We are not going to put a lot of new stuff in blocking scheme-wise week to week. So, the stuff that we go over day one of spring ball, hopefully we're running that stuff in a New Year's Day bowl game. That's the plan. We're not going to have a lot of new stuff. I'm not going to walk in there every Tuesday and go 'Ok, we saw Purdue do this against Illinois, so now we're going to run this against Illinois.' That gets you into more trouble than doing what you do and doing it well. With that in mind, we have to be really good with the skill position guys -- movement, motion, formational, us as coaches putting our players in a leverage advantage, doing things to not give the defense a chance to hone in on you. If you do that what happens is those guys up front they can be really aggressive because they have seen it. They know what to expect. They are ready to go and adjust aggressively. If it is something new to them, any little adjustment or tweak they tend to hang back and wait for things to happen, instead of attacking. I think maybe that is going to be one of the big changes in that we are going to fairly simple upfront scheme-wise, and let those guys really learn and go and be aggressive.
- Are you OK numbers-wise across the line with the recent departures of Jeff Wills, D.J. Burris and Dominic Alford?
ML: We are young. Let's put it this way, we are real old and we are real young. There is not much in the middle. That is probably the scariest part of it. We've got a good group of bodies. Coach Brewster did a good job of locating the same kind of linemen we like. Guys who are athletic and who have a little bit of a mean streak. But they are real young. But then there is Ryan Orton and Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders who are fifth year guys. We just don't have anything in the middle. That will be a tremendous challenge, getting that group enough reps and enough life experiences in a hurry that two or three of them will be playing some important minutes for us when we head out to USC. They've got to grow up in a hurry. That is the challenge. There are bodies there, but you just don't know if you can get them enough live reps to prior to our first game.
- I asked you about blocking schemes, and you said that 'what we're doing Day 1, hopefully, we're doing on New Year's Day.' I don't have to remind you of this, that it has been a long time since this team has been in a New Year's Day bowl game.
ML: I understand that. (laughs) I am not making any wild claims.
- But do you feel this team can get the job done and eventually play in New Year's Day game?
ML: This is a group of guys that as a team has some confidence because of what they did at the end of last year. Especially offensively, we don't have a ton of guys coming back. But at the same time, just being around these guys with their general demeanor and their attitude, this is a hungry group. I think they showed that. They beat two bowl teams at the end of the year. That is tremendous credit to coach Horton and the staff that was here in what they did to keep that group together. Then those young men who went out there and played, that is a hard thing to do. So that showed us something about them. Now, it is just a little different tweak of the attitude and the demeanor. With the new staff coming in I think there is an excitement about it. We're just going to roll up our sleeves and we're going to work. We're going to be fundamentally sound. We're going to not turn the ball over. We're going to play great defense. We're going to be good in special teams. And in this conference there is not a whole lot that separates every team. For Minnesota last year, with everything that wasn't going right, to be able to beat Iowa says something about not only the kids at Minnesota, but also the state of where the Big Ten is. If you can get your team prepared, there nobody on your schedule that you need to say 'Boy, we need to bow down and hand them the victory.' We'll take it one week at a time. We'll be as concerned with North Dakota State as we will with Michigan State. That is the way we will approach it. It is going to be 12 one-week seasons. We've got to prepare every week to make sure we do our best. If you do that and you get the kids headed in the right direction, I don't think it is a bad thing to have in the back of your mind 'Hey, let's go play on New Year's Day. Let's play in one of those upper tier bowl games and get into top three or four in the Big Ten.' I don't think it is bad to think that way, but I also don't think that is something coach Kill is going to make goal number one on the first day. Our goal right now is that these kids need to get better every day and then let's see what happens from there.
- Is Coach Kill heavily involved in the offensive game planning? Or does he defer a fair amount to you?
ML: He had been up until really last year. Then it got to the point where a lot of other thing got in the way as far as the head coaching part of it. So, basically he helps during the week with goal line packages. That is kind of his baby. Game situation-wise, he will say 'Hey , we need to hold on to the football a little more. The defense is a little gassed. Let's not get to crazy here.' Or vice-versa. I get that time to time from him, but he gone to more of the overall game management, working with both sides of the football, talking with the players as they are coming on and off the field and keeping them going. We talked about it just recently. He really enjoyed that part of it. He felt he really got to know the defensive guys a lot better and got to be more part of the game. He felt he has become a better game management coach, because he's not as worried with calling the next play. Fortunately, we had some success so he felt pretty good about it.
- Do you use the tight end a lot? We have seen the tight end used by the Gophers a lot in recent years past.
ML: We're no different. Our big thing is that we have kind of a hybrid fullback, second tight end kind of guy. I was talking before about being simple in the schemes, but being complicated in the ways that you move in motion and those types of things. We talk a lot with our defense about what gives them trouble and the things they always talk about is kind of the Wisconsin theory of taking guys who are very similar and move them around and create mismatches. We were getting to that at Northern Illinois. We didn't quite have the body types. But I've liked what I've seen from the guys here. I think that we can get to the point of rather being a traditional fullback, two receivers type team, it will be more of a two tight end set, but have one of those guys step off the line and move around quite a bit. The tight ends will still be a big part of what we do. We'll throw to them and keep them involved. I think the development of our tight ends at Northern Illinois was a great security blank for Chandler Harnish. I think we that those are guys that sometimes get forgotten by defenses. They are great outlets to have. They are great people for a quarterback to know he has. We will use them quite a bit.
- So, pre-snap, we're going to see a lot of guys moving around?
ML: Yes. There will be lot of movement between two or three guys that we will get in motion to create an unbalanced situation. We listen to our defense and we know what bothers our defense. We have a lot of fun with it in the spring. We try and scheme each other in a good way. It teaches us an awful lot. There are certain things that a lot of defenses have trouble adjusting to. And that's what we try and exploit while running our basic football plays. We're going to running the power play and we could run it anywhere from two tight ends and three backs to running it out of an empty backfield with just the quarterback. What we've learned over time is that you do all those different things that you can really get the defense where you want them and create situations where you are gaining the advantage by the movement and the motion.