Wolfson: Gophers coordinators see positives entering spring practice
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Until University of Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi exits his spacious Bierman Building office at the end of June, it's business as usual -- minus, of course, big decisions such as whether basketball coach Tubby Smith gets a contract extension.
One call Maturi can make that will offer little resistance is the building of a practice bubble the football team will use exclusively.
Appearing on "This Week in Golden Gopher Sports" on Saturday morning on 1500 ESPN, Maturi said he's working diligently to satisfy the request from football coach Jerry Kill.
As Kill has said, the indoor football field is often inhabited by the soccer, softball, baseball and track teams. In other words, if quarterback MarQueis Gray wants to gather his receivers for a throwing session, he has to first check to see when the field is available.
Big-time football schools, or ones that have a desire to be, should have no such worries. They also award their main assistant coaches multi-year contracts. But at least as far as defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is concerned, that is overrated.
I sat down with Claeys and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover late last week to reflect on last season and look ahead to spring practice, which begins on March 22.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys
What do you now know about this job that you didn't know when you took it?
I think the biggest thing is just being more comfortable with the players and their personalities. Football is football wherever you coach, so that hasn't been a big change. The hardest part is getting to know the players -- how you can coach them, their strengths and weaknesses. So, I just now know so much more about the kids.
Do you have enough guys who possess the strengths you need to field a competent defense?
I think they've improved a lot. From everything, including the work this offseason, the kids are competing better. Each Friday they do competitions and as a whole, they are just competing better. Their weights have gone up, their strength numbers have gone up, so we're making progress. That's where we need to improve the most: the offseason. That will make them a better player on game day. Now, we really can't just it all until we get to spring ball. I do know from being around the offseason workouts that the kids are working hard, it's twice as good as it was a year ago.
It'd be nice if it's that way in September and October. I remember seeing you a couple days after the 58-0 loss at Michigan, and you were saying, 'What the Hell' a lot. There were a lot of those moments last year.
Right, right. That's part of it, the growing process. You have to take baby steps to move forward. Between that week, and the next week at Purdue (lost 45-17), that was the low point of our season. I give the kids a lot of credit because after the off week, I felt like we competed a lot better and improved. Everybody wishes last season went a little bit better. It's done. It's over with. It won't have any effect on how we do this year. We have to work at it and get better.
Are you done with the comprehensive film breakdown, and if so, what stood out?
We go through each game thoroughly, and then do it again after the season. We are now into a phase of visiting people and having people come see us -- evaluating how other people do things and seeing if there are ideas that can help us. To us last season is already done. We've already made our evaluations. In general on defense, we have to create more turnovers -- we only had nine. We had extremes -- hardly any sacks, then the takeaways. So, next year, we have to create more takeaways and not allow as many big plays. We have to keep the ball in front of us more and we still need to put more pressure on the quarterback. That'll be our three big goals heading into next season.
What's on your itinerary the next few weeks?
(Sonny) Lubick (former Colorado St. Coach) was just in and visited with us for a couple days. We're going to TCU for a couple days then we're off to Mississippi State. I am also trying to set up a day with Iowa State. You try to find people who do things similar to you, or have to defend some of the things that you're defending, and share ideas. It's one of the few things in college football that we still do collectively as coaches -- share ideas, and not everyone is paranoid. It's a fun time of the year. Last year we couldn't do this as much as we were more concentrated on learning about our players. This is more the routine we are used to. We have some years we find stuff we like and it makes us better. A lot of times you discover that what gives us problems is giving everyone else the same problems. It's always good to talk to people and see what is going on. As soon as you think you know it all, you better get out. I do feel like we work hard in keeping up and figuring out what adjustments we can make for the next year.
Kill give you a fair amount of leash, or considering his defensive background, is he more hands-on with you?
Just the opposite. He's heavily involved with the offense. He was an offensive coordinator for years even though he played as a linebacker. I meet with him each week and go over things. He's got a very good football mind, so I ask for opinions. But I'm very fortunate that he does trust me. I keep him very informed.
Linebacker Keanon Cooper recently underwent wrist surgery. How is he doing?
Good. He had surgery last fall and we got him through the season, but he wasn't quite healing right. I think this time they have it taken care of. I don't know how much he'll be able to do during the spring, but that's not important being a senior. We just want him healthy, and he hasn't been since we've been here. When he does feel good, he's a really good athlete and can be a really good football player. We're doing everything we can for him to enter the season healthy. If he does that, I think he'll have a big year.
I think juco defensive tackle Roland Johnson will play a lot for you. Am I right?
He'll play a lot because we'll rotate a lot of guys in. Hell, they all have stars, and everyone talks about them, but you have to earn your playing time here. We'll see how well he does. We expect him to do well or we wouldn't have recruited him. But just because he's a junior college kid coming in doesn't mean he'll start. I do think for us to improve we have to get into a better rotation up front and have some more depth. We're at least hoping Roland can give us more depth.
Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman played well at the end of the year ...
He did. We broke down the film. He continues to get better. People need to remember for the kids that have been here three, four years, that they've been around multiple defenses. They get to now go in with the same system. So, for Ra'shede, he'll get better and better because the terminology will be the same. You'll see a big jump in a number of kids. They know what's expected of them also.
It would be a great story if linebacker Brendan Beal (knee) could get on the field for you. Where is he at?
He's still in the recovery part. He's doing his rehab with the trainers. We won't know a whole lot until the summer. But he's out here working out with the team and getting better. We want to make sure he's healthy before he goes out there.
With Cooper and Beal out for spring practice, Lamonte Edwards should get lots of looks.
He'll get a lot of reps as will others. We rep three groups all of the time. It is hard to count on anyone who isn't here in the spring. The kids here in the spring definitely have an advantage. Whoever is here right now will have a great chance to play. The kids who are coming in the summer, it's a hard road. We'll get the ones we have here ready.
Do you have a new linebacker in James Manuel?
Don't know yet. We'll see how it goes. We'll leave James in the secondary at the start, and then make that adjustment as we go if we can. He will start out in the secondary.
Who are your starting safeties?
It's a good question. The good thing is we don't have to know. My opinion is that we have seven days before UNLV to see who the hell is going to start back there. That's not an important issue right now. I think for us to be good in the secondary is that we need to get more kids who can play. We have to get to some depth where we don't have to ask them to learn as much. Then they will play faster and better.
I bet it's nice to have cornerback Troy Stoudermire back.
It is. It's a two-way street: I wish he could've played more, but if he did, he wouldn't have gotten the season back. It takes us away from having to rely on a true freshman to play right away.
How much did you blitz last year, and how much do you ideally want to blitz?
I think anyone will tell you that if they can just rush four, and stop everyone, they would. Anytime you blitz, you're taking a chance. I don't go into any season or game with a certain amount of blitzes. It really comes down to what we're doing to get pressure on the quarterback. You can't let the quarterback stand back there and throw it all over. Each week we do blitzes that we think will work. But how much we use them depends on how the game is going.
Last time we sat down, we did it in the defensive meeting room. In there you have a bunch of goals that seemed unrealistic on a per game basis, and I'm assuming many were not met. Do you need to refine those goals?
No. We won't refine them one bit. When we can do the things that are on that board, we'll be good on defense. It's not acceptable to not be good on defense. I think a lot of places get an attitude that they'll just outscore people. We've never been that way. It's unacceptable. Usually what you set as goals is what you get in the long run. We're not relaxing on any of them. In fact, we'll be as demanding as we've ever been. We will play well on defense here. To do that, we have to hit those goals.
When I sat down with university president Dr. Eric Kaler two weeks ago, he said you're going to Pasadena at some point. You agree?
I think that's our goal. I don't know when or how fast we'll get there, but if that's not your goal, you're in the wrong business. If you're not playing to be the best, something is wrong with you. When we'll get there, I don't know.
Is it realistic though? Many fans say you can't compete regularly with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
I don't know why the hell we can't, quite frankly. Now, I'm not telling you every game every year, but when we get to a point, there's no reason why Minnesota can't play in the Rose Bowl. No reason at all. All you have to do is be better that one day. Our attitude is that we're building this thing to compete for a national championship or a BCS bowl. I don't know when we'll get there. Any goal less than that is unacceptable.
Will it be the same setup with you coaching from the press box this year?
Downing those Diet Cokes?
Actually, Coke Zero. It's the best seat in the house.
Did you buy a place yet, or still renting?
Still renting. It's the second contract when you're a coach that you buy.
Did you sign a three-year contract?
No. We all signed one-year contracts.
Was that the university's doing?
I think that's the way the University of Minnesota has always operated. (Editor's note: former defensive coordinator Ted Roof was given a multi-year deal, and Maturi told 1500 ESPN months ago that multiyear deals would be coming for Kill's guys). I know Coach, Joel and President Kaler are working on some other options. I don't worry about it. Anytime they give your head coach a seven-year contract, it's like us having a seven-year contract. It's not a big concern.
How much fun are you having?
I'm having a blast. Last year wasn't much fun. The day-to-day process and seeing the improvement I've enjoyed. I've enjoyed living in the city, something I've never done before. The attitude change of the kids in the last six months has been tremendous. I'm having a great time. I'm really looking forward to the fall.
So, you need to get to the quarterback. Do you have the right ammo to do so?
It's a cop-out to blame the kids. We have to find a way to coach them better.
You recruit the metro. How's that going?
I enjoy it. The coaches have been very good. We get out to all the schools and games in the fall. I don't want them to just see me when they have a really good player. I'll be in those schools twice a year.
You guys kicked some serious ass in the metro with this class.
Yeah. We always have to take care of home. In order for it to be that way, those kids have to grow up Gophers fans. It's the ones who don't where it'll take work. Part of being a fan means we have to win more. They'll remember coming to the 'Bank' and they'll all dream of becoming Gophers one day. The more successful we are, the better we'll be able to recruit for a long time.
Kaler told me he's working on some improvements for you guys. What other resources do you need?
I've been to Nebraska and been through their offices. It doesn't keep us from winning. Our daily facilities aren't as good as Nebraska and Michigan. Our stadium is as nice as anyone's in the country. Does it have an effect on recruiting? Sure. But you also want kids who want to be here and aren't just here because of the nice buildings. It takes nice facilities because that is how kids are these days. But at the same time, we won't use that as an excuse. Our facilities are not killing us. When you invest in something, it's not a one-time shot. It's a continuous investment. Each year you have to look to improve something. That's what the big boys are doing. We have things here that others don't -- the Twin Cities. How many times can a kid come to a school and get a good education and then have the opportunity to stay here if he likes it? You have to know the culture you have. We are very happy with how recruiting went. But there's always things we would like to see improved.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover
How many 'what the hell' moments did you have last year?
There were a few, but it's a part of the process. It's not the end of the world even if it feels like it is. I think having been through that with the coach we have that we knew brighter days were ahead. There were times that I shook my head and wondered what else would go wrong. At the same time, it's nothing that hard work isn't going to solve.
Those moments came. For instance, everyone remembers the Iowa onside kick, but you guys still had to move the ball and score. Then the whole Illinois game was productive ...
That's true. We are watching our cut-ups right now -- they start vs. USC and finish with Illinois -- you can see development of individual players. The one thing we did at the end of the year that I am really proud of -- early we weren't very good teammates. When MarQueis (Gray) would go back to throw, we wouldn't protect for him. When we did protect, the receiver would drop it or MarQueis would overthrow him. -- that's what you saw evolve over the course of the year. It really gives you hope that they played together. Now, we still have a ton of work to do, but when you look back at Iowa, Illinois, and even Michigan State, there's light at the end of the tunnel.
How much of your offense were you able to use last year?
Too much (laughs). As coaches we made the mistake of wanting it to be year four of what we built at Northern Illinois. When we left there, we really had things offensively going. We were able to do a lot of things. We thought that progression would continue in year one at Minnesota. We probably put too much on their plate early. As the year went on, it was a downward spiral. They survived to get first downs and to score. Then the off week came, we were at our lowest point, we went back to fundamentals and paired down the game plan, and our players felt more comfortable. We realized the mistakes we made. By the end of the season we were at 35 or 40 percent of what the whole thing can be, but it was the best 35 or 40 percent we could do for this group at that time. We need to make sure we keep that in mind.
MarQueis Gray got better as the year went on. I bet it's nice to know that you get to put your fingerprints on him again.
There's a transformation going on with him from a young man who plays quarterback to being a quarterback. Everyone knows that he's a wonderful talent. When he goes back and he's comfortable with the football, he looks like a big-timer. That part of it is there. Then on Fridays when the guys have competitions, coach (Eric) Klein (strength coach) said he's getting into faces, he's patting butts, he's cheering, he's talking some smack, and we didn't see that at all last year. That tells me he's pretty comfortable with where he's at right now. That's scary. He can now concentrate on being a great quarterback. I'm really excited about where he's at.
Any concern about distractions in his life with fatherhood and the NFL Draft next year?
If he had a great junior year, I'd be very nervous. I think he'll be the first person to tell you that he still has to improve. He was a good player last year, and at times, a great player, but he has the ability to be a special player and he hasn't done that yet. I think he looks at this year as his audition. As far as the new additions to his life, I think it was a distraction when it first happened. But as you know with an 11-month old, it's routine. How we deal with him is now more routine.
That O-line is your baby. It was good and bad last year. Good: many guys got snaps. Bad: you never had a cohesive five for a long stretch.
Throughout my career, there's been a lot of continuity as far as a lot guys starting a lot of games in a year. There wasn't much shuffling. It was a new experience. On the flip side, I called the guys together the other day, and asked them to raise their hands if they started a game last year. Eight or nine guys raised their hand. I then asked how many guys played significant minutes vs. Nebraska, or Michigan, and two more raised their hand. That's what we're dealing with. I told them that I love them all, but I will play the best five. Those guys have really been responding by working their tail ends off. I'm excited about spring. I don't know who the first, second, or third group is. I know I have 14 guys who are hungry. The five who are the smartest and who do the most in the spring will leave as the starting five. But there are six or seven we can win a lot of games with.
Philip Nelson reminds of your quarterback at Northern Illinois, Chandler Harnish, who will be on an NFL roster in a few weeks.
I think that's a really good comparison. The fundamentals are definitely there. He's a kid who has been well-trained. He's kind of got that "it" factor. I wouldn't count out Mitch Leidner. Philip is more highly-touted, but there's a reason why we were so high on Mitch as well -- what we saw in the summer, and the jump he made from his junior to senior year. Those are two young men who have "it" when it comes to this level.
I have a lunch bet that James Gillum will be your leading rusher this year. Should I make the bet for White Castle or Murray's?
I'd say Murray's and make sure you start eating early and have plenty of room. I love James. I won't hide my man-crush. He produces. He produced in high school and at the junior college level. He's our kind of guy. He's a grinder. He also has that ability in the open field to make people miss. Just him being here will put the pressure on (Donnell) Kirkwood, David Cobb and Devon Wright. Those guys have to pick their game up. Even though James hasn't been here, we've known a lot about him and feel like he fits us real well. If you're betting in favor of that, keep it high up the totem pole.
I think your tight end John Rabe is sneaky good.
I think so too, so let's not tell anybody. The great thing about John is his versatility. He's a good on-the-line tight end, but he's so smart and has such a good feel, that we like moving him around to allow him to gain leverage. He's a great example of how everything was new those first couple games. He looked like a fish out of water. But once we got into the off week, he was able to settle in. He had a really good last third of the season. We expect him to be a leader on offense.
Does receiver Andre McDonald help you right away?
Yeah. I think our receiving corp will be the surprise of the offense. They will be the ones that people are pleasantly surprised with. In some respects, they will be like the O-line -- a lot of young guys. That group will go six, seven strong... There won't be a drop-off. Marcus Jones (ACL) will be back. Devin Tufts, if you saw him walk around, he's a different kid (Editor's note: I did, and he's noticeably thicker). A lot of good things are going on at that position. They are starting to feel it with the quarterbacks.
What about Jimmy Gjere (concussion) and Josh Campion (concussion)?
They feel good now. I am proceeding as if they will be 100 percent healthy. At this point they won't be treated any differently. You can't wear white gloves around them and expect them to get better. I'm hoping it's in the rear-view mirror. I'm hoping that no more concussions happen this spring. But it is a fact of life. We'll move on if it does happen, but those are two great kids. They can help us quite a bit.
Will you remain in the press box this season?
Yeah. It gives me a chance to get a feel from up top and be a play ahead. Daryl Agpalsa our graduate assistant, who has been an O-line coach (three seasons at Hamline), that's a great advantage. We speak the same language. Then our tight ends coach, Rob Reeves, we do a ton together. They both do a great job down there, so I can concentrate on calling the game. I do as much as I can to get them prepped so Saturday is the easiest day of the week.