MINNEAPOLIS A year ago, the Gophers began spring football practice to a very clear tune: This is Jerry Kill's team.
It was the beginning of the coach's second season in the Twin Cities. He'd recruited a class of players by that point, gotten that first 3-9 season and all the initial kinks of being new and turning a program around out of his system. And it was Jerry Kill's team, no question. Players knew what to expect, and coaches in turn, and there was a sense that things would get better.
They did. Minnesota won six games and made it to the Meineke Car Care Bowl, which resulted in a loss but a definite sense that the team was making a step toward the next level.
This season begins on a very different note, although it, too, is one of ownership: This is Philip Nelson's team.
Nelson, a sophomore next fall, assumed the team's quarterbacking duties against Wisconsin on Oct. 20, when he burned his redshirt. The freshman played in seven games, winning two, and he goes into the 2013 season as the starting quarterback. That's what Kill said at his introductory press conference on Monday, at least, and it's how Nelson will be listed on every depth chart and roster note.
The only catch: Philip Nelson isn't quite taking it for granted.
"In my mind, I wouldn't really say I'm the starting quarterback," Nelson said Tuesday on the team's first day of spring practice. "I would say that I still need to compete, just like everybody else. That's how Coach Kill makes it. Everybody needs to compete."
And Nelson is right. Kill and his staff have been known to demote players when others are outplaying them. They've never been a group known for a rigid hierarchy or irrational trust, not at their time at Northern Illinois or in their two seasons at Minnesota. The best player plays, and with a half of a season of a starter's duties under his belt Nelson knows it.
The 19-year-old is just talking a good game, one might say, but in the flesh, if it's a schtick, then it's damn believable. Sounding the consummate leader in one breath, talking about how he's mentoring Chris Streveler, a quarterback who left high school early to be with the team this spring just as he did a year ago, in the next Nelson is peppering his speech with "he and me and Mitch," over and over. He, of course, being Streveler, and Mitch being Mitch Leidner, the quarterback who redshirted all of last season and now sits comfortably on the depth chart behind Nelson. But it's he and me and Mitch, he and me and Mitch, as if they're a team in and of themselves, less a ranked trio than a cohesive unit.
Nelson knows exactly who is waiting, and perhaps that's why he seems two or three years older rather than just six months aged from the previous season.
This winter, Nelson assumed a much larger leadership role in the team's individual workouts. He was constantly calling and texting his teammates, arranging when to meet and where, giving instructions to guys about what they'd need to do if they had to miss a session. Nelson is talking more, running back Donnell Kirkwood said, and getting more physical on the field, too.
"I like that in my quarterback," Kirkwood said. "He's confident."
And for a player who took the team's bowl-game loss against Texas Tech harder than most Nelson threw the interception that sealed the defeat in its final seconds that late-December setback has in recent months transformed from a flogging post to a learning experience. Nelson said that in that game, he felt he and his team formed their clear identity, which they now know going into this season. They're a physical team that can play-action pass, Nelson says: "That's where we are now. ... We have an official offensive identity, and we can do the things that we're good at."
That confidence is contagious, as is the notion that players need to take ownership of their team and their actions. When asked whether this was a better team than the one that took the field in Houston in December, Kirkwood paused.
"More disciplined, yeah," he said. "So I guess that makes us better. More knowledgeable."
Kirkwood, too, is ready to shoulder some extra leadership. The redshirt junior said he hasn't done enough in that department in the past, and when asked who might need to step up for the team this season, his own name was the first out of his mouth. In the past, he said, he was too focused on his fear of making mistakes at the expense of leading the team, but now he seems to be over it.
And so this is Kirkwood's team, a bit, and Nelson's too. But with the way these players are talking and working, you get a sense whose team it is in all of their minds. It's Jerry Kill's, more and more, with every season and win and recruit. It's the diminutive coach with the distinctive twang who's running this machine, and it's running better than ever, if his players are to be believed.
Talking to Kill after the practice, the subject of Nelson comes up, and of course the quarterback's words of just a few minutes earlier are relayed to his coach. He said he's not the starting quarterback, or that he doesn't see himself that way. What do you think, Coach? And Kill's smile widens.
"That's a great answer," he said. "I'm glad to hear he answered that way. Shows a little maturity on his part, so I'm proud of him for answering that way."
The coach is pleased. The mindset is there. And for a team as young and unproven as this one, those are two important steps. Now comes the hard part.
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