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Minnesota looks to build off last year's surprise success in 2014 spring practice

Mitch Leidner After seeing limited action in 2013, Mitch Leidner (7) should start for Minnesota this fall. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Nothing was working for Minnesota in the first half of last December’s Texas Bowl against Syracuse. The Golden Gophers -- in search of their ninth win of the season -- entered the locker room trailing 7-3. Their offense was stagnant, an issue that had plagued the team toward the end of the year. Quarterback Philip Nelson and company hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown since the second quarter of a 24-10 victory over Penn State on Nov. 9. Against the Orange, that didn’t appear set to change.

Enough was enough for Jerry Kill. Minnesota’s coach, who had watched games from coaches’ box since October, ventured downstairs and returned to the sideline. All he wanted was a face-to-face chat with his players.

“I couldn’t stand any longer watching how we played,” Kill said.

With Kill on the sideline, Minnesota found its footing. After Syracuse scored a touchdown on a five-yard Terrel Hunt run in the third quarter, Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner -- inserted in place of Nelson -- tossed a pair of touchdown passes to give Minnesota its first lead. Though Hunt halted the Gophers’ rally by rushing for a game-winning 12-yard score with 1:14 to play, Minnesota showed heart in closing out its unlikely campaign.

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Despite the 21-17 defeat, the Gophers finished 8-5, the program’s best record since 2003. That mark is even more remarkable given the health concerns facing Kill. The coach suffered an epileptic seizure on the field at halftime of Minnesota’s 44-21 win over New Mexico State on Sept. 7. Almost a month later, on Oct. 5, Kill had another episode on the morning of the Gophers’ game at Michigan. He remained in Minneapolis that day while defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys coached the team in a 42-13 loss.

Kill’s bout with epilepsy was nothing new. He first suffered an on-field seizure as the head coach at Southern Illinois in 2005. Three seasons into his tenure with the Gophers, Kill has experienced at least five seizures on game days.

In the week following the Michigan game, Minnesota announced that Kill would take an extended leave of absence to focus on his health. Claeys, a member of Kill’s staff for 21 years, would serve as interim head coach.

Kill kept his distance from the team for two weeks, returning to attend an Oct. 19 matchup at Northwestern as a spectator with his wife, Rebecca. His players didn’t know he’d be in the stadium, but he made his way to the locker room at halftime. A 7-7 score turned into a 20-17 Gophers’ victory.

“Oh, I remember Northwestern,” Leidner said. “[Kill] came down to the locker room at halftime. We were fired up, and we came out strong in the second half.”

Kill remained in the coaches’ box in the ensuing weeks, gradually taking on more responsibilities. The win over Penn State lifted the team’s record to 8-2, but Minnesota dropped its final three contests, including the Texas Bowl. Still, the end to the season wasn’t enough to spoil the Gophers’ attitude heading into winter workouts. Kill said this has been one of the best offseasons he’s had as a coach.

“I think any time you come off a good year -- we didn’t finish exactly the way you want to -- but we had a good year and kept moving the program forward,” Kill said. “I think the biggest thing is the kids gained some confidence throughout the year. They were certainly disappointed, but that’s a situation where we all were. We came right back, watched the film and got to work.”

A positive aura surrounds the program this spring for a number of reasons. The 2014 roster returns 14 starters, seven on both sides of the ball. That’s particularly big on defense; Minnesota was one of the stingiest units in the Big Ten last year, allowing 22.2 points per game, fourth in the league.

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The Gophers’ troubles came on offense: They averaged just 5.2 yards per play, 11th in the conference. Much of that blame fell on the nation’s 117th-ranked aerial attack, as Minnesota relied heavily on running back David Cobb and the ground game. Cobb rushed for 1,202 yards and seven scores, but a lack of balance was evident.

Kill and his coaches are in search of that balance this spring. In January, Nelson surprised many when he announced that he would transfer. That put the spotlight squarely on Leidner, who showed glimpses of his potential in the Texas Bowl. During an offseason meeting with the team, Kill pointed to Leidner and told his players, “This is your leader.”

For his part, Leidner is taking his elevated role in stride.

“The bowl game was huge for building confidence coming into the offseason and spring ball,” he said. “But along with the bowl game, in the bowl practices I was able to get a good feel for the game plan and get real comfortable with it. I felt very confident about what we were doing for that game.”

Kill said Leidner, who was a redshirt freshman in 2013, took charge during the offseason. In fact, the coach credits him for the Gophers’ hard work in the weeks leading up to spring drills. “It was all set by the tone of Mitch Leidner,” Kill said. “He kind of took it over. With his leadership, and what he’s done, the team’s really jumped in it. They’re hungry, and they were disappointed. But I told them they need to be starving.”

Kill’s presence has only added to the positivity. Critics have questioned his priorities, as he seemingly valued football over health for much of his career. After all, people with epilepsy aren’t encouraged to experience severe stress or a lack of sleep. Minnesota’s administration, however, has embraced Kill. It extended the coach’s contract in February through the 2018 season and boosted his annual salary from $1.2 million to $2.1 million. In a statement, school president Eric Kaler said Kill “is the right coach for the University of Minnesota.”

Kill is quick to downplay his health concerns. He is already driving when no one thought he would be, and he’s paying increased attention to his sleep and dietary habits. He’s been in far worse situations; his first seizure at Southern Illinois in 2005 led to the discovery of Stage 4 kidney cancer, which he soundly defeated. Still, Gophers players and assistants understand the threat that faces their coach each day.

“It’s tough,” Leidner said. “But at the same time, we know he’s a tough guy. We just want to be as tough as he is. We look at him, and we’re just thankful for every single day, and being able to play every single day. He’s done so much for us, and we just want to play for him.”

If Kill has to be a role model in that regard, he isn’t backing down.

“Everybody has a struggle or two,” Kill said, “but you bounce back. I still believe it determines what kind of person you are with how you handle adversity. Anybody can handle things good when everything’s going good.”

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The bigger issue, at least in Kill’s mind, is taking Minnesota to the next level. The Gophers may have enjoyed their best season in a decade, but a program with seven claimed national championships and 18 Big Ten titles has not won a conference crown since 1967. Kill wants that to change.

The coach said the Gophers must do things “a little bit differently than everybody else,” meaning they can’t land a class of top recruits in the way that Urban Meyer does at Ohio State. Instead, Kill follows the example set by Michigan State's Mark Dantonio. Building a program is a gradual process, and Kill knows it takes time. But so far, the model is working.

“You look at what Michigan State’s done,” Kill said. “I give coach [Mark] Dantonio credit. They’ve kept their coaches, for the most part. They have confidence and a great president who believes in what Mark is doing. And look what they’ve done. They had to do it differently than Michigan and Ohio State to get where they’re at.

“I think we’re the same way. We can’t select, we’ve got to recruit. We’ve got to find those guys that fit in for what we do.”

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