College Football: Gophers look to build on 8-5 season
By Jack McCarthy
CHICAGO — Jerry Kill says he’s feeling healthier these days and his Minnesota football program reflects those improved conditions.
The 52-year-old Golden Gophers coach missed two games last year following epileptic seizures — a condition he has had since 2005 — but reportedly has had none since last October.
“I’m feeling fine, thanks for asking,” was Kill’s brief response when asked about his health during Monday’s Big Ten football media days.
The fourth year coach was more expansive about the turnaround executed in just three seasons.
Minnesota went 8-5 last year — the Gophers’ first winning season since 2005 — and reached a bowl game for the second straight year. Minnesota dropped a 21-17 decision to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
“I don’t think anybody picked us to win eight games,” Kill said. “Now we have to build on what we did a year ago and continue to make progress.”
A preseason media poll tabbed Minnesota fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West, the first year of a division realignment.
“We did a couple of things last year that we haven’t done in a long period of time,” Kill said. “I think we’re a little farther along than I thought we’d be. It usually takes three recruiting classes and we were able to do this last year with two.”
Minnesota returns eight offensive starters and seven on defense plus sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner, who shed his redshirt and played in 10 games, starting four.
“He’s done a great job,” Kill said of Leidner. “We redshirted him and then he came in and what he did was a natural progression and now it’s his team.”
Leidner completed 43 of 78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed 407 yards and scored seven times.
Rejoining Leidner in the backfield is senior running back David Cobb, who ran for a team-best 1,240 yards and tied with Leidner with seven rushing touchdowns.
Defensive back Cedric Thompson, meanwhile, has embraced a leading defensive leadership role after topped with a team-high 52 tackles.
“He came up to me after the season and said: ‘Hey, I want to be that guy, I want to have that pressure, it’s my time to lead,’” Kill said of Thompson.
Junior defensive end Theiren Cockran, a second-team all-Big Ten defensive end, also returns after recording 30 tackles (18 solo).
Minnesota opens Aug. 28 at home against Eastern Illinois and by mid-September begins a challenging slate with a non-conference games at TCU followed by Big Ten clashes at Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin plus home games with Ohio State.
“Nobody can say we didn’t have the strength of schedule,” Kill said.
The Big Ten revamped and renamed its conference divisions with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers, assigning both to the East. Division champs play in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6 at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
NOTES: Kill said he’s pleased with this year’s new national championship playoff system that preserves the bowl system. “I’ve been a part of both coming up,” he said. “I think combining the two — to have a true No. 1 team — I think that’s good.” ... Minnesota has lost 10 straight games to Wisconsin and beating the Badgers is one among his objectives. “You have to beat the border schools,” he said. “So there’s certainly a focus on that. But we focus on everybody.”