MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota's football program has grown accustomed to setbacks. That also means the Gophers have plenty of experience with learning how to move on.
The departure of leading receiver A.J. Barker, who angrily quit the team on Sunday by an email to coach Jerry Kill that he took public on his personal blog, was a surprise to the players he left behind. As they returned to practice on Tuesday in preparation for their last regular season game, they sounded unfazed by the potential distraction. Those made available to the media expressed confidence anew in Kill's style and leadership.
"Obviously, we'd rather have it for something positive," Rallis said of the latest attention-garnering development for the Gophers. "That's all we'll try to do is try to turn the spotlight into a positive."
Barker, a junior walk-on with 30 receptions for 577 yards and seven touchdowns, missed the last three games.
He was upset because he hadn't been given a scholarship this season and by what he felt was a mishandling and misunderstanding of his sprained right ankle by the athletic training staff. Barker said he believed his injury was worsened by being forced to practice on it by Kill, who denied that. Kill yelled at Barker in front of the team last Thursday for what the coach felt was a disrespectful attitude.
"If you play for any coach and you're doing something that's not going to benefit yourself or the team, any coach is going to let you know about it," senior wide receiver MarQueis Gray said. "It's just how you handle yourself. Just be prepared for it. You've got to be strong-hearted about it."
Gray said he had no idea about Barker's frustration.
"We were just in the locker room, talking the week before. He always came to meetings. But to know how it happened? It's just something that is going to affect us all, but that's between coach Kill and A.J. and we wish A.J. the best," Gray said.
The Gophers (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) have already secured a spot in a bowl game, but they'd like to improve their Big Ten standing. They host Michigan State on Saturday, the last home game for 15 seniors.
Kill said again he feels bad about the way Barker departed. But similar to the way he reacted publicly to concern about his recurring seizures or the manner in which he brushed off criticism of the decision to cancel two future games with North Carolina for $800,000, Kill sounded like a guy wondering what all the fuss was about.
"We concentrate on what we have and what we're doing. I've been pleased with their attitude," Kill said. "My focus is on the ones that are here, and they're doing a great job."
He added later: "We're moving forward."
They've had trouble doing that with the pass since Barker was hurt. They've thrown for an average of only 105 yards over the last three games and a total of one touchdown against two interceptions.
"He was one of our best guys. He was able to stretch the field and make plays for us, and that's just one of the jobs we're going to have to have someone fill up to," Gray said.
The offensive line is still banged up, and the defense is having trouble staying healthy, too. Two backups, tackle Roland Johnson and linebacker Brendan Beal, are out, Kill revealed. Johnson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees in a non-contact practice last Friday, and Beal who has missed two seasons because of knee-ligament tears, hurt the joint again in last Saturday's loss at Nebraska.
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