Once a football coach, always a football coach. That thought began to wane at Jerry Kill after he spent part of the past few years in administration, first as an associate athletics director at Kansas State in 2016 and then as the athletics director at Southern Illinois from 2018-2019.
At Southern Illinois, Kill had a lake house in the area, and it seemed like a position that would please the Cheney, Kansas native. However, that itch to return to football in a coaching capacity couldn’t be contained for much longer.
“I’m a football coach,” Kill said while speaking to the Virginia Tech media for the first time on Monday. “And once you’re a ball coach, you’re a coach and not an administrator.”
Kill even admits that his vacation time over the years has been spent attending football practices across the country. One destination this summer landed him in Blacksburg to observe the Hokies. Fast forward a few months later, and he’s now the special assistant to head coach Justin Fuente.
“It’s addiction like anything else,” Kill said. “And you try to get rid of it, but it’s very difficult. So it’s great to be back in my kind of passion. And it is a unique move, but I’ve done a lot of unique things and have been through a lot of unique things. But it’s a good fit.”
Among those unique things that Kill has been through is his battle with epilepsy. It’s what caused him to step down as head coach at Minnesota in 2015. Kill was thankful as ever when describing what football has meant for him, saying it “saved his life.”
Kill noted that he was perfectly healthy until about 13 years ago, and since then the players and coaches that he’s been in contact with over the years have kept him going. The connection he’s been able to make with Virginia Tech players was apparent from the very beginning as several shared a positive reaction on Twitter when his hiring was announced.
“I really enjoy coach Kill,” quarterback Ryan Willis said. “He’s a real good guy. He’s a good coach. He’s still picking up on things, like learning new terminology, but I think he’s really going to help this team going forward.”
With the upcoming matchup against Duke, Kill has intently been studying film on the Blue Devils and the Hokies. What’s the day-to-day life look like for Kill in the role, though?
“My day-to-day is whatever Justin tells me to do,” Kill smirked. “My life’s great. I’m not the head coach, and there’s nothing better than that, not being the head coach.”
Kill’s new position is one that he’s always had on his staff as a head coach. There’s an importance to having someone who you can bounce ideas off of and provide solid, constructive criticism on a daily basis.
“I looked for the person that worked for me side-by-side that wasn’t on the field is I want him to tell me, ‘Hey, you need to back off a little bit. You need to do this. You need to do that.’ And I listened, because I trusted that person,” Kill said. “I think that’s the crux of it. And then [Fuente] knows my background through all the places I’ve been. Life’s about relationships and trust.”
That background includes 36 years of experience that he can bring to the program. It’s a wealth of knowledge that can certainly be beneficial over the long haul of the season and years to come.
Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen explained at last week’s press conference that the first area where he would look for Kill’s insight is in the running game. It’s here where Kill shares a philosophy that might remind Virginia Tech fans of Frank Beamer.
“You’d have to again look at my background, and I’m one of those guys that will run the ball, don’t turn it over, play good defense, be good in special teams,” Kill said. “And the teams that have the less turnover rate still win most of the time. Plus, if you can run the ball, you can shorten the game. And it’s a physical mentality, which helps throwing the ball.”
Ryan Willis’ Self-Preservation (or lack thereof)
Over the past two games, Ryan Willis has left the game in the fourth quarter. On both occasions, he was a runner in open space and didn’t slide or run out of bounds.
“It’s hard in the moment, but I need to be smarter and protect myself,” Willis said. “It’s a long season and we’re only three weeks in. We’ve got 12 weeks, so it’s just self-preservation. I need to know when to go down and not fight for those two or three extra yards that probably won’t mean the whole world at the end of the day. I’ve just got to take care of my body. There’s only so much tread on the tires.”
With just over eight minutes left versus Old Dominion, Willis kept the ball on a read option and picked up a first down. However, he crumpled into a defender, causing him to fumble. Willis did not return, but that was more of an indictment against his ball security than any major injury.
On a second-and-7 with less than six minutes remaining against Furman, Willis rolled out to his right and scrambled up field, awkwardly diving head first as he took a jarring hit in the ribs area from the Furman defender. Willis did return at the end of the game for the victory formation, and noted that he just got the wind knocked out of him postgame, but there’s still the growing worry that’s he’s not protecting himself.
“That position is difficult enough,” Justin Fuente said. “You don’t have to add anything. Both being diligent with the football and his own body is important. We have to continue help him understand that part, making the right reads and going the right place with the ball will sort of help those things, but we would like for him to be more careful, yes.”
There’s been some concern about Willis’ health heading into Duke, but he said during Monday’s press conference, “I feel good. Ready to go Friday night.”
Watching College Football
Given a bye week, it afforded some of the coaches and players a chance to watch some other teams across the country play on Friday and Saturday. Willis, in particular, was attached to the Virginia versus Old Dominion game, one that the Cavaliers ended up winning 28-17 after trailing 17-0 in the first half.
“It’s just a different perspective,” Willis said. “Seeing my peers go out there and compete makes me feel better about my game when I see other people doing crazy stuff. We’re all human. We make mistakes. It gets chaotic out there, and the good teams are the ones that can manage the chaos and make the most of it.
“Taking advantage of opportunities is huge. Just look at the U.Va.-ODU game. They’re trailing, some opportunities struck, they got a pick-six and I feel like the tide kind of flipped. I enjoy watching other games. I’m obviously a big fan of the game of football, and you can learn a lot just by watching.”
It’s the excitement and variability from week to week that captures the attention of Fuente. He cited the crazy UCLA-Washington State that ended up with a final score of 67-63 as an example.
“I think college football as a whole, you never know what you’re going to see every week when you turn the television on,” Fuente said. “The biggest thing is you just don’t know what you’re going to see when you turn the television on now. It’s all over the place, with some of the things people are doing schematically, with the way recruiting has gone earlier and earlier, I think that teams that are more patient in recruiting are reaping some of those benefits.”
And then there was Bud Foster, who used Saturday to see how he thinks his team stacks up against the rest of the field. It was also an opportunity to take a step back and see what the road ahead may look like.
“There’s a handful of teams that are really good, and then there’s a lot of teams that are like us I think,” Foster said. “Really working hard to improve, compete, and execute, and do the little things right. Just being consistent. That’s kind of where we fit in in that mix.
“We have as good of a chance as anyone when it’s all said and done. We’ve got to go be consistent in our habits and our performance and those kind of things. That’s kind of what I came away with.”