LINCOLN — Tracy Claeys is a native of Clay Center, Kan. — smack in the middle of old Big Eight country — and he graduated from Kansas State in 1994, the peak of the Nebraska football machine rolling through its former league and college football.
So, yes, Minnesota's defensive coordinator and acting head coach knows a little about the Huskers' reputation for running the football, and what NU might do in Saturday's 11 a.m. ESPN-televised game at TCF Bank Stadium.
“That's what they've always done: Put a hat on a hat and knock someone off the ball, and have that I-back come downhill,” Claeys said. “That hasn't changed. That'll be a huge challenge for us.”
It's not the biggest challenge on Claeys' plate. That would be leading the team in place of coach Jerry Kill, who announced Oct. 10 that he's taking an open-ended leave of absence to treat his epilepsy. Kill has suffered five seizures on game days in 2 1⁄2 seasons with the Gophers, and missed the Michigan game Oct. 5 because of a seizure.
Minnesota's athletic director and university president have strongly endorsed Kill — 14-18 with the Gophers after taking Northern Illinois to three straight bowls — to continue when he's ready, but that doesn't make his absence easier for Claeys, who has coached under Kill since 1995 at five stops.
“We still stick with his principles,” Claeys said. “It's not like it's been all new. But it's taken a little bit more of my time because of the media. I meet with the offense a little bit, not much, and I have a general idea of what's going on.
“I wish I wasn't in this situation. I wish Coach was here all the time. But we all accept stepping it up a notch for him because he's done so much for us. You throw yourself into the game preparation and you really don't notice it a lot.”
Except when Kill's wife, Rebecca, drove him seven hours to the Gophers' game at Northwestern. Kill sat in the coaching box, addressing the team at halftime and after Minnesota upset the Wildcats 20-17. The Gophers later posted Kill's 90-second postgame message on YouTube, which had more than 15,000 views by Wednesday.
“That's a moment I'll leave this university with,” senior safety Brock Vereen told reporters in a Minnesota press conference. “Nobody knew except for the coaches. For him to come in, it was impossible not to go play for him in that second half. He's just as responsible for that win.”
Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman may deserve a little credit, too. Considered a likely first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft — WalterFootball.com has Hageman going 10th overall while two analysts for NFLDraftScout.com have him at 27th and 29th — the 6-foot-6, 311-pounder has 6 1⁄2 tackles for loss this year and seven pass breakups, including three at Northwestern. His favorite NFL player? Former NU defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
“He's just so aggressive,” Hageman said in a phone interview. “He's disruptive, super strong. He has all the right skills, and his technique is so fundamentally sound.”
Hageman said Claeys, who has been his defensive coach since 2011 and overseen the senior's development into an All-Big Ten caliber player, has handled Kill's leave of absence well.
“He's a lot more quiet,” Hageman said. “But Coach Kill and Coach Claeys have the same morals. If you don't get the job done, you're going to have to learn. Coach Claeys is laid-back, but he'll let you know when you've done something wrong. Coach Kill and Coach Claeys understand each other on a certain level.”
Claeys said Tuesday during his teleconference and later to reporters in Minnesota that he expects Kill to appear again in the coaching box Saturday. When asked whether Kill will be making coaching decisions — whether a guy technically on leave would have a major role in how the Gophers scheme — Claeys defended his mentor.
“I don't know where it's written that he's not supposed to have a role,” Claeys said. “He's going to work himself back into it until he's full-go again. It's not going to be some day where, bam, 'I'm back again.'
“We'll take whatever help he can give us. He's a great football coach, and we all have respect for him.”
>> Video: The Big Ten Preview Show, Oct. 23
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