Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 9/19/12
MINNEAPOLIS After beating New Hampshire in the 2012 home opener a few weekends ago, Gophers football coach Jerry Kill was asked about the difference in his defensive line from last year to this year. Kill's answer was simple: Eric Klein. Klein is Minnesota's head strength and conditioning coach and has been on Kill's staff since 1994. Over the last 18 years, Klein has followed Kill whenever the head coach has taken a new job elsewhere. When Kill went from Saginaw Valley State to Emporia State, Klein went with him. He moved with Kill's staff to Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and most recently Minnesota last year. "He's the best strength coach in the country. I've said that all along," Kill said of Klein. "People have tried to hire him away. He's been loyal to me. Why? I have no idea." It's a sign of loyalty on Klein's part to stay with Kill as his staff has moved upward in the college football ranks, finally taking over a struggling Big Ten program. But it's also a show of loyalty from Kill to keep Klein on his staff for nearly two decades. "I've been very fortunate," Klein said. "He's always asked me to come along when he's taken a job. He's been loyal to me. He's always tried to help me out whenever he can, and I try and give him the best that I can in terms of what our player development is." Now in his second season at Minnesota, Klein's work in the weight room with the Gophers players has finally translated into concrete results on the football field. Last year's team finished with a 3-9 record, was typically less physical than its opponent and was often slower, too. Through three games in 2012, Minnesota has a perfect 3-0 record. On top of that, the Gophers are bigger, stronger and faster than they were a year ago. That's a testament to the countless hours they spend with Klein and his strength staff in the winter, and the added time spent lifting weights during the season, sandwiched in between practices, classes and study sessions. In the offseason, Klein's days begin at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex around 5 a.m. and he often doesn't leave until 6:30 p.m. Long hours in the weight room, to be sure, but Klein is dedicated to revamping a strength program and helping a football team make strides on the field. "When I first got here, I had to take an initial evaluation of where were we at and that first year was really just a foundation of developing the work ethic and the idea that anything worth having is worth working for," Klein said. " That first year, it's really just a grind of building that foundation of it's going to be boring, it's going to be hard, it's going to be laborious. Now, the second year, it's still hard, it's still laborious, but there's some more fun in it and you get to experience a little more fun with the work you're doing because you put in hard work in year one." The results are noticeable on the field from year one to year two. Take senior defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite, for example. As a junior last year, Wilhite was listed at 6-foot-4, 237 pounds. Now, he's listed at 250 pounds, but that extra weight is muscle mass. Klein said most of the offensive and defensive linemen have gained 10-15 pounds, but have lost between five to seven percent body fat in the process. For Wilhite, the added work in the weight room has already translated into a team-high 3.5 sacks through three games. He had just three sacks all of last season. "I think where it shows that Coach Klein really shines is when it comes to these long drives, especially (the first week against UNLV) when we had to go to triple overtime," Wilhite said. "Coach Klein really did a great job of making sure everybody's in great shape so there's really no slow down. It doesn't matter if it's the first quarter or fourth quarter. We're all trying to come out with that same kind of energy, and we can do that because of the way that Coach Klein has pushed us over the summer and the winter." For Klein, the job with the Gophers has been a bit of a homecoming. He moved to Minnesota in high school and graduated from Apple Valley High School. Although he said he was recruited a bit by the Gophers, Klein ended up playing Division III football at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Shortly after graduating from Carleton, Klein joined Kill's staff at Saginaw Valley State and hasn't looked back. Although Klein didn't follow the Gophers until he was in high school, he remembers watching some of the talent Minnesota produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, players such as Rickey Foggie and Darrell Thompson. Klein's goal now is to help restore the program back to where it was back then. Even if he has to do it one rep at a time in the weight room. "Anybody that gets into my part of the profession, my reward is on Saturday when I watch those guys come off the field and they've made their big play, they're running back, everybody's high-fiving them," Klein said. "That's my reward, singing the rouser on the M' in the locker room, that's my reward. I love that. That's why I do what I do." Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.
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