DeKALB – Jerry Kill enters his third spring as the Northern Illinois football coach with increased expectations for his team in 2010.
NIU has been to bowl games in back-to-back seasons and early prognostications have the Huskies at or near the top of the MAC West.
There are also plenty of questions about this year's team. Daily Chronicle sports reporter John Sahly sat down with Kill for an extensive interview on Wednesday to discuss the state of the Huskies entering spring practices. This is part one of that conversation. The following is an edited transcript:
John Sahly: From being around the team and some of the more seasoned players, do you get the feeling it's a more veteran type of team?
Jerry Kill: I wish I could say that, John. I heard the softball coach [Lindsay Chouinard] stand up at a meeting the other day and she said athletically her team is better than they've been the last two years, but they're still making some mistakes because they're youthful. I'd say that's a pretty good assessment of us. There's no question I think that our team, right now, is more athletic than it's been since I've been here. Overall, at every position.
I feel very good about our football team. I think, and you'd have to do a little work on it, if you count the freshmen we're bringing in, plus the freshmen that we had last year, that's pretty much over half our team. (Sahly postscript: My count says 42 redshirt/incoming freshmen, 84 players on campus now, 107 total including the recruiting class, which will have to drop to 105.) So it's still a pretty youthful group, but talented. It is talented.
John Sahly: Most of the way through the season, you mentioned often how youthful they were. What did you see out of those young guys that says they're progressing?
Jerry Kill: I think the offseason, we approached things kind of differently. We played until Jan. 2. I think that's the longest season they've had. That's more like a true bowl game, so to speak. So we go clear until Jan. 2. They're off for about a week-and-a-half and then they're back in school. We really felt like we needed to get physically stronger in the weight room and then when we did our morning workouts, (sports performance) coach (Eric) Klein said 'I want to see us do certain things. I want to see us bend better. I want to see us change direction better. We want to play better in space. We want to use our hands better, etc.' And he did that in the offseason workouts.
Him and his staff did an outstanding job at taking our kids and teaching them how to run, how to change directions quicker, just really specific things. It was a good approach. I'm impressed with what they accomplished. We were outside for the first time for morning conditioning on Tuesday because of the weather and strength-wise we improved, speed-wise we improved. We looked better running. I think the credit goes with him and his staff. I said 'These are our weaknesses in football right now. Translate that and try to get that better in the offseason.'
If you get better with a knee bend and flexibility, you can get stronger. We'll take a kid, (defensive end) Sean Progar, he benched in the preseason 355 (pounds). He's benching 390 right now. He squatted 495 in the early season, he's at 520 now. Then he power cleaned 309 pounds, with about a 20-pound increase. That's just one example... 2008 is when we took the job. We only had 10 people that could squat 450 pounds or more. Now we have 45.
Part of that is recruiting and if you can recruit some kids with some base strength. Let's look at (defensive end) Alan Baxter. He weighed 251, now he weighs 259. I think that's about what Larry [English] weighed. He went from benching 375 to 415. He went from squatting 425 to 525.
John Sahly: He went up 100 pounds in a year?
Jerry Kill: Yeah. But part of that, you've got to understand, is that freshmen will jump like that. And part of that might have been a technical thing. He's so technical down in the weight room. He hang cleaned 309. And he can run.
Perez Ashford, he came in benching 290, which is pretty good for a freshman. He's benching 295 now, increased five. He increased 40 on his squat and increased 23 on the power clean. He's going 273 now, which is pretty good for a receiver.
John Sahly: Did you see those kind of improvements across the board?
Jerry Kill: Yes. I told them I was going to post them. If they didn't improve I was going to tell everybody (laughs) and hold them accountable. Across the board, it got better. Jason Schepler weighed 257, now he weighs 265. He benched 300, now he's 330. He's at a 435 squat in the fall. Now he's at 470. Stephen O'Neal, the quarterback we recruited to play defensive end now has gone from 219 pounds to 232. Devon Butler went from 216 to 224. He benched 300 when he came in, now he's at 335. He squats 440. He was coming in at 405.
That's about what a typical freshman will do. (Senior wide receiver) Landon Cox went from 217 to 220. He was benching 320, he went to 355. He was squatting 405, now he's at 445 and he's hang cleaning 342, which is a heck of a hang clean. All around the board, you can just keep going. But then, (Right tackle) Adam Kiel, he was hurt (foot injury). He wasn't as productive. Even [quarterback Chandler] Harnish went up 20 pounds on his bench, even with his knee [injury.]
John Sahly: How is your team's health coming into the spring?
Jerry Kill: [Harnish] will not go through the spring. He'll have surgery in the next couple of weeks. I don't know exactly when. His outcome will be how quick he heals. Will it be in June? No. It's going to be right up to the time we start (camp) if he's going to be able to go. And we understand that, he understands that. That's why we took a junior college quarterback (Casey Weston).
And we feel good about the guys we've got. They've done well. I should have mentioned them. They really increased (in the weight room).
(Fullback) Connor Flahive (knee injury), he'll practice, but he'll be limited. I don't know how much contact I'll give him. That's more of a precautionary thing right now.
Adam Kiel is supposed to go see the doctor Tuesday. He'll miss the first three practices. We're hoping we'll get at least a half of a spring out of him. We'll be more careful than not.
(Running back) Chad Spann has been doing all the offseason stuff. He'll be going through all the drill work. I doubt if we'll hit him in the spring. [His shoulder] is just healing. Him and (defensive tackle) D.J. Pirkle, it's the same thing. If we were playing or something like that, I guess we could. But we're not going to take any chances with both of them.
John Sahly: Did [Spann and Pirkle] need surgery?
Jerry Kill: Both of them needed surgery. Chad played with a bum shoulder a whole month of the season and had surgery right after. D.J. got hurt early in the season. Both had labrum tears. Their surgeries all went well. Adam Kiel needs spring ball, though. He had a [heck] of a season going on and then got hurt.
We're deep as [heck] at running back, with loads of talent. At receiver, there's talent, 8-9 guys there. Offensive line is where we're the thinnest, but when the season starts it'll be the deepest we've been. We'll have about 15 of them. Right now we've got nine. But that's about how it is everywhere.
Defensive line, we're deep. Safety-wise and corner-wise, we've got all those guys back. Linebacker-wise we're thin on numbers but we signed four and we've got a (Proposition 48) kid (George Rainey) that's going to make it. George did great. He's doing well.
John Sahly: With [Spann] just basically doing drill work, it sounds like you've got some guys that are going to have an opportunity, especially with Me'co [Brown] gone.
Jerry Kill: There's one thing I decided to do. There are some very close races going on and I want it to be competitive. There are several positions that are going to be competitive. That way you don't have to put up with [anything]. If you're not going to work, you're in trouble. It just makes your team better.
All the running backs are here. Akeem [Daniels] is here, so is Jasmin [Hopkins]. They work. Jas will play tailback and Akeem will play receiver to start with, but he can play either. He's a freak. Akeem came in a 171 (pounds). Now he's 180. He benches 285 pounds, squats 470 and hang cleans 276. And he's 5-6 and 180 pounds.