Wolfson: Gophers defense counting on triumphant return of Kim Royston
Working for Gophers head coach Jerry Kill since 1995 should enable defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to have a sense of belonging -- that his job security can be the least of his worries.
But Claeys is no dummy. He's a renter, not a buyer.
He's well-aware the Gophers have gone through 11 defensive coordinators in the last 20 years. Some left by choice, and some left because they had no choice.
When talking with Claeys in early July, I truly believe he was sincere when he said he doesn't know who many of his starters are.
While most schools know who their first-teamers are at the start of August practice, Claeys is using these 26 practices before the season opener at USC to find that over-achiever, that diamond in the rough, that player who seemingly has the potential but wasn't able to get there under the previous regime.
He's also looking for one player in particular to make a triumphant return: safety Kim Royston.
Sitting out in 2008 after transferring from Wisconsin, Royston started all 13 games in 2009, registering 86 tackles and one interception. His best game came against Iowa State in the Insight Bowl, where he made 15 tackles and forced a fumble.
Then, last spring during 7-on-7 work -- a drill he has been a part of countless times -- Royston broke two bones in his left leg. There was some thought he could return at some point during the season, but that never came to fruition.
A rare sixth-year senior, Royston is now back, just about fully healthy.
I recently exchanged emails with Royston:
When I say "Spring Football 2010," what comes to mind?
It's over. One moment I was playing, excited for my senior year, the next moment I'm laying there looking at my tibia sticking out of my leg. I'm hearing the players and coaches screaming and I'm thinking, "Damn, no more football." But that feeling only lasted about an hour. At the hospital, my dad told me if this is the worst thing that ever happens to me that I will have a great life. I had my first surgery that night. Afterward, I was like, "When can I start rehab?"
Before you played your former school Wisconsin last season, you said you felt "99.8 percent healthy" and would be a "game-time decision." How frustrating was it to not only miss that game, but every game thereafter?
Some of that was being overly optimistic and some of it was gamesmanship. Leading up to the game, I had been told that one day the pain would be gone. Unfortunately, that never happened. Later we would find out that I would need additional surgery. Going into the game, I knew folks at Wisconsin knew I would do anything I could to get out there and play. I saw no reason to confirm that I wouldn't be playing. To say I was frustrated is putting it lightly. We were having a tough year and I wanted to be out there with my teammates. I felt I could have made a difference. I tried to help from the sidelines, but I'm a football player and I wanted to be on the field.
As presumably frustrating as that moment was, was the call to grant you a sixth year of eligibility the equal on the flip side?
I had been told that getting a sixth year was next to impossible. As far as anyone could remember, no Gopher football player in recent memory has been granted a sixth year of eligibility. A chance meeting with (former recruiting coordinator Dan Berezowitz) led me to me apply. He told me I had nothing to lose. The week after Christmas, I had my fourth surgery. I was hoping I would be ready by pro day. When I got the news that I had been granted my sixth year, I was extremely happy. After going through all I did to get to the U, I wanted my college football career to end on a positive note. Getting the sixth year gave me that opportunity. I tell the fellas all the time: 'Enjoy each and every moment you get to take the field. Enjoy every time you get to the wear maroon and gold as a player,' because you never known when that may be your last time.
Can you let loose like you did when you excelled in 2009?
I believe so. After being a situational player my first two seasons playing college football, a position change and then having to sit a year, I entered the 2009 season rusty. By the start of the Big Ten season, I felt comfortable. I'm finally healthy and I'm in shape, so I see no reason why I can't play to that level or better.
What has been the tougher grind on your road to recovery: the mental side or the physical side?
The mental. I had never missed any significant time due to injury before. Prior to the injury, I had always been healthy. Then I spent almost a year not being able to run or run without pain.
How does Tracy Claeys and Jerry Kill's defense differ from what Kevin Cosgrove/Ronnie Lee had you guys doing?
Attack versus read and react.
How odd, or not odd, is it to think that you have played for four head coaches: Bret Bielema, Tim Brewster, Jeff Horton, and now Kill?
Don't forget I was recruited by and committed to Barry Alvarez. They all have their different personalities and I have learned something from each one of them.
Did you take part in captain's practices this summer, and if so, did you take some of the young guys -- Brock Vereen, James Manuel, etc. -- under your wing?
I participated in all of the captains' practices. I try to impart something I have learned to the guys at every opportunity.
During spring practice, Claeys said, "One play he looks good, next play he doesn't. That guy that's up and down all the time is frustrating to coach, so hopefully, the longer we go he'll be more consistent." Considering you haven't played in a real game since December 2009, how long will that consistency take to get back?
As a football player you always strive to be consistent. During spring practice, I was six weeks removed from a major surgery and I was almost a year removed from playing football or being in football shape, which I wasn't in at the time. During spring football I gave what I had and I would agree I was inconsistent. When will I be ready? I'm ready now. I had better be if I want to play. There will be a lot of competition to play.
Have you thought about beating Wisconsin in your last shot to do so and running around TCF Bank Stadium with the Axe?
As a team, our goal is to bring all the trophies home to Minnesota.