Jerry Kill got Minnesota back to a bowl game in his second season but needs to continue to add talent for the Gophers to become a Big Ten contender.
Kill received a nice signing-day surprise when junior college linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who had been committed to Kansas State, signed with Minnesota. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder also had offers from Texas and Tennessee and has three years of eligibility remaining. Kill talked about that and the Gophers' other recruits when I caught up with him earlier today for this Q&A:
What were your biggest priorities with this class, and how did you address those?
Jerry Kill: I think the biggest thing is, we lost five scholarship linebackers a year ago. We've got a couple of good players coming back, but we really needed to address that need. I think we did a great job of doing that with Damien Wilson, the national junior college player of the year, at 6-2, 250. I didn't know how it was going to go, but we were fortunate to land De'Vondre Campbell. Then we signed three freshmen who are all very talented. They've got length and can run. We set out a board full of these guys we needed to get, and the only one we didn't get was Duke Riley, who went to LSU. So we felt like we really addressed our linebacker need.
We thought we really needed to get a guy who can catch the football at receiver, and Drew Wolitarsky from California is that type of player. Eric Carter is another wide receiver and Donovahn Jones is a guy who was recruited by everybody in the SEC, whether it was on offense of defense, and we got him to flip. He can do a lot of things. So I think we helped ourselves at the receiving corps and linebacker corps and at kicker, with a guy who can kick and punt [Ryan Santoso].
There weren't a lot of Division I prospects in Minnesota this year, and you signed just one player from your home state. What kind of challenges did that present to you?
JK: You know last year, I think we got 13 or 14 kids out of Minnesota. This year wasn't as deep. Every year changes. Even in Florida, there are down years, but they have more population. I think we focus on trying to get the best players. ... We relied on a lot of people that we know. We had a lot of ties to the kids that we recruited, people that we know. You've got to cut down on recruiting mistakes as much as you can. You're always going to make some, but we feel like we did a pretty good job of researching and getting kids who can handle what we do here. Next year's different, in every state. When we have a year that's loaded in our state, we have to make sure we take care of it.
You had a freshman starting quarterback this year in Philip Nelson, yet you signed another quarterback in Chris Streveler. Do you see him competing right away, or are you looking at him for down the road?
JK: He's a very athletic kid. I've been on the road the last three weeks and he's been here already, working out. I know our strength coaches marvel at how far along he is and how fast and athletically gifted he is. So I think we have a great situation at quarterback, and also with Donovahn coming in. When we had Chris in camp, he also played receiver. So athleticism is more important than anything, and he'll work hard to get on the field anywhere.
Berkley Edwards has great bloodlines, as the younger brother of Braylon Edwards. What do you like about him?
JK: Where we're at right now, we've got two big backs who I thought had a tremendous bowl game and a true freshman who I think is going to be an excellent player in the Big Ten. But we don't have that quick-burst back that can get it over with, and Berkley brings something to the table we just don't have, which is get-it-over speed. He's been timed electronically at 10.6, 10.7 in the 100 meters, so he can really, really run. My phone's blowing up about him. A lot of people are excited. He's a great kid with a great work ethic, and he's got great bloodlines and football's important in that family.
You mentioned Donovahn Jones' versatility. Do you have an idea about where he might play?
JK: We're going to give him an opportunity at quarterback. I think that's what he would like to do, but he also wants to get on the field, so he's said, "Hey, I'll play receiver, too." I know he wants to stay on the offensive side of the ball. He was recruited by Arkansas and several others to play defense, but he wants to play offense. He's a talented kid. I think he's a youngster you get into camp and let him show what he can do.
You mentioned the linebackers. Do you envision getting some immediate help there?
JK: Absolutely. Damien is here already and he's impressed our strength coaches with how big and how athletic he is. And with De'Vondre, he's a 6-5, 225-pound guy who can run. What I'm really impressed with is our freshman, Chris Wipson and Rayfield Dixon, who's got a 38-inch vertical, and De'Niro Laster, who is one of those 6-4, 230-pound guys who can run. A year ago, we had to go out and get seven secondary players, and those kids played well for us this year. That's what we had to do at linebacker, and I think we've done the same thing. Athletically, certainly, we've helped ourselves there.
This is your third recruiting class. How close are you to building the kind of depth and roster you need?
JK: Really, it's our second recruiting class, because when we got the job, we honored the commitments of the previous staff and were pretty much committed up. So, really, as far as researching and recruiting, this is our second class. I think we are gathering some depth, more so than we had two years ago. But I think we're probably a year away. You need three true recruiting classes, really, to turn the corner. We did that at Northern Illinois. The third recruiting class seemed to really turn it. I do think we're going to be better. We improved this year, and I expect us to improve this upcoming year.
How much did making the bowl game help your recruiting efforts?
JK: We were fortunate that night that we were the [only] bowl game. Our kids played hard and it was fun to watch. We didn't win it, which was disappointing, but I know when we walked off the field we felt like we finally played a physical, hard football game we were used to playing as a staff where we were before. I think it kind of set the tone in the offseason. Our kids came back, went to work and are doing some things on their own. They haven't done that since we've been there. That's what happened at Northern when we turned the corner. When you can point to a bowl game and people see you on TV, it helped us on some of these kids. We wouldn't have been able to get in the same ballpark a year ago with the people we were recruiting against.