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Kill Ranks U D-Backs with Big Ten’s Best

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August 6, 2014

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Gophers football notes…

Jerry Kill has praise for his defensive secondary as the Gophers prepare for their 2014 season and opening game on August 28 against Eastern Illinois.  “We’re deep in the secondary—secondary-wise we’ll be as good as anybody in the Big Ten,” the head coach said on WCCO Radio’s Sports Huddle program on Sunday.  “We’re athletic.”

The secondary players aren’t drawing national attention but program insiders are impressed including Kill who said on the radio there is “tons of talent” available. However, Lindy’s Big Ten preview magazine, for example, isn’t on board and ranks the Gophers defensive backfield No. 13 in the 14-team Big Ten.  And the Jim Thorpe award is given annually to the nation’s best defensive back and no Gophers are included among the 39 candidates on the 2014 watch list.

Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover sends passers and receivers against the secondary in practice and said on occasion “we’re not going to look good.”  Senior safety Cedric Thompson, senior cornerback Derrick Wells, and junior cornerback Eric Murray are among the talented defensive backs.  With plenty of talent and experience, the secondary can “get you frustrated,” Limegrover said.

Ed Olson, Jr.

Ed Olson, Jr.

Former Gophers offensive lineman Ed Olson, a senior on last year’s team, referred to the defensive backs as “studs.”  “They will live up to the hype,” he told Sports Headliners.  “They’re a great group of guys.  They work hard and they’ll never give up.”

The collective skills of the secondary players should ultimately help make redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner better in his first full season as the starting quarterback.  Leidner only threw three touchdown passes last season but the defensive competition in pre-season camp this month figures to help him.

Olson describes Leidner as an outstanding leader and the “hardest worker” he’s known.  “I remember when he came in as a freshman he was on my off-season workout team.  Didn’t really know him.  He’s probably the best pick I ever made.  He came up to me and said, ‘You won’t regret this pick.’

“I’ll never forget that.  He stepped up.  We won like the off-season ‘Rose Bowl’ (competition) and everything.  He’s a big reason for it.  Great friends ever since.”

At practice this week Olson watched his brother Tommy Olson who is on the Rimington Award watch list for the nation’s top center.  Tommy started the last four games of 2013 at center after being moved from guard prior to the season beginning.  As a senior, this will be his last chance to have his best season. “He’s really into football this year and he’s loving it,” Ed said.

His brother also said Tommy has added about 10 pounds and weighs well over 300 but he has also emphasized flexibility in the off-season. “He’s gotten a lot stronger and faster,” Ed said.  “He says he’s the fastest and strongest he’s ever been.  He can’t wait for the start of the season.”

With no more football in his future, Ed has gone on a low carbohydrate diet and dropped about 90 pounds from his playing weight of 320.  He wore jersey No. 58, the same number his father, Ed Sr., did playing for the Gophers in the early 1980s.  Now Tommy will wear No. 58.  “Really cool,” Ed Jr. said about Tommy continuing the tradition.  “Couldn’t think of anyone else wearing it.”

Ed Jr. was recruited as part of coach Tim Brewster’s 2009 recruiting class.  He was redshirted that year, and then played as a starting tackle in 2010 before Kill succeeded Brewster for the 2011 season.

Olson has watched the program go from a Big Ten punch line to a respected program.  The Gophers won four league games last year for the first time since 2005 and went to a second consecutive bowl game.  What about a New Year’s Day bowl game in 2015?

“I can’t make any predictions now but if they take it day-by-day and keep improving like they have been, the sky’s the limit for these guys,” Olson said.

Dan O’Brien, Gophers associate athletic director, has worked with Kill since the coach came here from Northern Illinois and sees him every day.  He said Kill is driving a motor vehicle, an indication of being seizure free for a long while.

“I think he’s managing his schedule well,” O’Brien said. “He seems like he has great energy.  I know he’s excited for the year.  He thinks this will be our best year in his time here.”

Both the Gophers and Stillwater-based Creative Charters are sponsoring fan trips to Minnesota’s game in Fort Worth against Texas Christian on September 13.  The trip is something new for the athletic department, while Creative Charters has been organizing football and basketball trips for many years.

O’Brien said the intent of the TCU trip is to allow fans to get “closer to the team.” Part of the fun will be having the Gophers Marching Band in Fort Worth.  But other than the TCU travel package (a few openings remain) and a possible bowl game trip, the athletic department has no further plans for fan travel.  “We have zero interest in doing it more than once a year,” O’Brien said.

Freshman walk-on quarterback Jacques Perra is a player to watch develop.  At Roseville Area High School he played for former North Dakota State quarterback Chris Simdorn who led the Bison to NCAA Division II titles in 1989 and 1990.  Perra was the 2013 Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year and threw 35 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.

The Big Ten Network crew that stops at Big Ten schools previewing the football programs will be in Minneapolis to showcase the Gophers for a report airing August 16.

The Gophers and other Big Ten programs reduce their nonconference games from four to three and increase league games from eight to nine starting in 2016.  Michigan State has arguably become the best program in the Big Ten but the Gophers don’t play the Spartans again until 2017.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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