Football

Double reverse: Limegrover, Kill working to revamp Minnesota offense

Courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

Matt Limegrover, Minnesota's offensive coordinator, has been coaching with head coach Jerry Kill for 14 years. Through three games this season, the duo has helped Minnesota put up 34 points per game.

Southern Illinois’ 80-yard, beautifully orchestrated game-winning drive against Western Illinois on Oct. 5, 2002, did more for two men standing on the sideline than it did for the program.

The drive didn’t just end the Salukis’ 18-game losing streak to the Leathernecks, which dated back to 1983. The defining victory established the names of offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and head coach Jerry Kill.

“It was one of those drives where every play call was right and they were on the right page together,” said Mike Fritzler,  a Southern Illinois offensive lineman from 2001 to 2002. “It was a huge wall that was knocked down for Southern Illinois. And it was a springboard for Jerry and Matt.”

Ten years later, the Salukis’ glorious march down the field symbolizes what Limegrover and Kill have perfected throughout their 14 years of coaching at each other’s side: cooperation and turning around football programs. After starting together at Division-II Emporia State (Kansas) in 1999, Limegrover and Kill revitalized the Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois programs and now strive to make Minnesota their third such project.

The Gophers finished 2011 last in the Big Ten in scoring with 18.4 points per game and in yards per game with 310.3. Through three games this season, Minnesota’s 34 points per game puts it at sixth in the conference, and the Gophers’ 429 yards is good for fifth.

Turning offenses around has been Limegrover’s expertise throughout his career.

Limegrover coached the offensive line at Emporia State for the 1999 and 2000 seasons. When Kill left the Division-II ranks for Southern Illinois, he brought most of his staff with him, including Limegrover.

This time, though, Limegrover would have the added responsibility of offensive coordinator.

“He cares about us as assistants, he’s hard on us, but he also wants to make sure that we’re getting the most out of the kids and I appreciate that,” Limegrover said via Minnesota athletic communications. “He’s made me a much better coach over the last 14 years for sure.”

Fritzler was a member of Kill and Limegrover’s first recruiting class at Southern Illinois. He joined a team that had finished 3-8 the season before.

“That was a terrible program,” Fritzler said. “I was coming from Butler County Junior College, where we won a national championship. And I walked into one of the worst athletic programs in the country at the time in SIU.”

In Kill’s first season at the helm, the team found a way to regress and finished 1-10. Limegrover’s offense finished at the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference in touchdowns and points per game.

The offensive coordinator saved his job and possibly his career when he found out about quarterback Joel Sambursky, from Liberty, Mo. Sambursky, though, had already committed to Northwest Missouri.

But that didn’t stop Limegrover.

“He ended up basically forcing his way on my front porch,” Sambursky said. “He said ‘I want to talk to you. We want you to come out here and give it a look.’ He was incredibly persistent.”

With Sambursky under center for the 2002 campaign, the team immediately saw improvement. The Salukis scored more than 75 points in each of their first two victories and then upset No. 8 Western Illinois, 54-52, on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Sambursky to receiver Brandon Robinson as time expired.

Sambursky said the SIU offense turned around so quickly because the coaches stressed the consistent execution of the “little things.”

“For me, it was footwork,” the former quarterback said. “It was everything from where my first step was to just making a handoff or how to make a proper juke step. … But the little things are what dictate a football game.”

The Saluki offense was one of the best in the Missouri Valley Conference for the next six seasons. SIU averaged just 15.2 points per game in Kill and Limegrover’s first season, but averaged as many as 42.6 points per game during their tenure in Carbondale.

Braden Jones transferred to Southern Illinoisin 2005 from Northwestern and was one of the Salukis’ most consistent producers. He said Limegrover’s work ethic toward creating an effective game plan deserved credit for the team’s offensive outbursts.

“He is meticulous,” Jones said. “I think he lives and breathes football. He is always up on the offense watching film and always coming up with new ideas.”

Sambursky recalled hearing stories from film sessions in which Limegrover would rewind the same play 15 times because everything regarding the offensive line needed to be flawless. The former quarterback said his coordinator sees the game of football as “a chess match.”

Sambursky, who graduated in 2005, holds the SIU career records for touchdown passes, completion percentage and most rushing yards by a quarterback. It wouldn’t have been possible without the offensive coordinator who personally recruited the quarterback.

“I owe a lot to Matt Limegrover,” Sambursky said. “He gave me a shot and we got things turned around.”

Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Northern Illinois hired Kill to replace Joe Novak. Like he typically did, Kill brought the majority of his coaching staff with him.

Again, Limegrover took over the reins of an offense that was at the bottom of a conference. The 2007 Huskies’ unit scored 25 touchdowns and scored 19.1 points per game, both fewer than any other team in the Mid-American Conference.

By the time Kill and Limegrover left Northern Illinois, it was one of the top offenses in the nation, and not just in the MAC. In 2010, the Huskies averaged 37.8 points per game, good for 13th in the country. The team finished third nationally in rushing touchdowns and seventh in rushing yardage.

“One of the things about our offense is that we’re not going to try to fit square pegs into round holes. There’s a lot of different ways we can go with the offense, depending on our personnel,” Limegrover said. “So the biggest thing is just who we have at our disposal. The kind of athletes we have will really drive the offense we’ll have from year to year.”

Justin Kramer, a former Saluki offensive lineman from 2002 to 2005, said Kill’s system, not just Limegrover’s offensive prowess, is a reason these programs have improved so drastically.

“At any time you get a collective whole buying into one vision and one goal, I think success is going to happen early for you,” Kramer said. “I’m not shocked one bit they turned it around. Not one bit.”

Kramer said he isn’t surprised by Minnesota’s 3-0 start this season. Fritzler said it’s only a matter of time before the Gophers’ football program takes off, since the offense’s style is similar to what Limegrover directed at Southern Illinois.

“It keeps a defense honest,” Fritzler said. “It may not be loaded with talent, but it gives the offense a chance. They’ll adapt a system to the talent they have.”

Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood also believes that the Gophers will be Limegrover and Kill’s next successful masterpiece.

“We’re real close,” the redshirt sophomore said. “We made a big jump to this year from last year. We can do anything on any down, and that’s what makes this offense so good.”

It remains to be seen what Kill and Limegrover can accomplish with a Minnesota team that competes in a challenging Big Ten conference.

But the results from a bond between two inseparable and intelligent men who have made their careers off turning around football programs couldn’t be clearer.

“I think it says a lot about loyalty,” Kramer said. “That’s something you don’t see a lot in the profession anymore. With that loyalty comes consistency, and anytime you can create consistency in a program, you have a great chance to be successful.”

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