In this edition of our The Fifth Quarter series, GopherDigest caught up with departed senior defensive back Grayson Levine for an in-depth interview profiling his career in Minneapolis and four seasons as a Gopher.
GopherDigest.com: Can you remember all the way back to high school and walk me through the recruiting process and how it eventually came down to Minnesota"
Levine: "Recruiting and stuff all started for me after my junior year as I started getting letters of interest from a range of schools division one to division three. They were asking for film and I started getting some calls from coaches and I was lucky enough to receive a few offers. That summer before my senior year, I went to a few Big Ten camps that expressed interest from Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa State. None offered, but wanted to see senior film. I got a few more offers around my senior year from D1AA schools and visited a couple of them in Northern Iowa and South Dakota State and ended up committing to UNI. Then when the coaching staff changed at Minnesota and Kill was brought in, grad assissant Jesse Nelson told their staff about me because he really liked me at Minnesota's camp the last summer. Eventually, Coach Claeys called me and came out to a basketball game and told me he liked the way I competed and invited me on an official visit. From there, I got to see more of the U and fell in love not only because of the school and it being close to home, but also the coaches and wanting to be a part of Minnesota football and be a brick in the foundation that brings us back to greatness. Lucky for me, I got an offer from Kill that Sunday night around Christmas time and committed right away. It was the best decision I've ever made."
GopherDigest.com: What was it like to stay home and play for the Gophers, especially coming from a place like Eden Prairie?
Levine: "It was a big change that first year coming from winning a lot of games, to only winning three as a freshman. Staying close to home and having my parents at every game was a blessing. I was able to grab lunch with them or go home whenever I wanted, so it was great to remain close with my family."
GopherDigest.com: What was it like being in Kill's first real recruiting class and playing as a true freshman?
Levine: "It was amazing. Being one of "Kill's guys" is something I'll forever be proud of because of what he's doing with the program. Looking back on it, it's amazing to see how much his philosophy and teachings pay off. His message of "buy in" and "the boat is moving with or without you" became so clear after this year. My first two years with guys from the previous staff meant that there were still several guys who weren't bought into the program and didn't want to work the way Jerry Kill wanted to with his hard hat and lunch pail mentality. That was evident in our record. Looking back on the past two more successful seasons, more guys were bought in and wanted to come to work everything and that showed with our performance on the field. As far as playing early on, by no means was winning three games a good time, but the blessing of being able to play as a true freshman, get my feet wet and the experience of playing in stadiums like the Big House and USC was unforgettable. I never imagined playing as an 18 year old in the Big Ten, but I'm so happy that God gave that opportunity to me. I still remember winning and keeping Floyd as a freshman. I was able to be on kickoff the last half of the season and that onside kick we did to ultimately win the game is something I will never forget.
GopherDigest.com: I remember that onside kick vividly, can you walk me through what you remember?
Levine: "We huddled up before and Coach Kill told us we were going to finally use the onside kick we had practiced all season. Immediately, everyone got really excited and were all focused and ready to go. I remember running out on the field and whole crowd was roaring and we all were focused and ready to go. I eyed down the guy I was supposed to block with Spencer Reeves and I think it was Jordan Wettstein who was kicking. As he approached, we all burst running and the ball hit once on the ground and popped in the air. I ran full speed and me and Spencer collided on a single Hawkeye and blew him up. Next thing I knew, I heard the crowd screaming and looked up and we got the ball back. It was one of my most exciting moments as a Gopher.
GopherDigest.com: Another significant special teams play I remember you had a part in was the blocked punt touchdown against Eastern Illinois last year, did that play compare at all?
Levine: "It was definitely awesome and I was glad to be a part of that. There was such an excitement from the crowd when we blocked it and I remember the ball being tipped and almost not caught. But that play wasn't Iowa. It wasn't the Hawkeyes. There wasn't that intense rivalry and bad blood that we have with them. Executing a play like we did against a good opponent in a great conference like the Big Ten was definitely more memorable and significant to me."
GopherDigest.com: Are there any other moments you'll always remember from your time with the Gophers?
Levine: "Absolutely. There are so many. Beating Illinois to go to a bowl game was amazing. Beating Nebraska two years ago at home and then at their place this year on Briean Boddy-Calhoun's UNREAL play. Along with beating Iowa this year and taking back Floyd. Also, although we lost our bowl games, the experience of those was awesome. Especially this year in Orlando. Seeing how excited the state got and being in such a fun and great place like that was something I was glad to be able to end my career on, even though we unfortunately didn't get the win. However, I think winning this year in the Big House will always be one of my greatest memories. Playing in that stadium and seeing/hearing 100,000 people silent after beating their team is truly something special."
GopherDigest.com: Are there any games you look back on and wish you could have had that one back?
Levine: "Absolutely. The one that stands out the most is this year against Wisconsin. We should have won that game. As well as Ohio State this year. We were so close and had the opportunity to win, but I game them credit as I mean they are the national champions after all. With that Wisconsin game, that long pass they completed near the end of the first half on a busted coverage was really where the momentum shifted."
GopherDigest.com: What was it like to work with Coach Sawvel for four years?
Levine: "It was amazing. He truly is in my opinion the best defensive backs coach in the nation as well as one of the smartest men I've ever met. Beyond this, he is one of, if not the, hardest working men in the nation. The amount of time he invested in each one of his players emotionally and physically is beyond compare. He truly cares about his players and making them a better player and more importantly a better person. Being away in college, you don't have that constant parent interaction and he became another father figure to myself and my teammates. He sacrificed so much time with his family and time for himself to help us out and that's something I'll forever be grateful for. He taught me how to prepare and evaluate opponents and the hard work and dedication that goes into better your craft. It will carry over into my professional life and I will be successful because of him and what he taught me."
GopherDigest.com: What was Sawvel's teaching style like?
Levine: "Teaching was absolutely different depending on the guy. He never sacrificed good or tough coaching for someone's feelings. He told us that "coaching is like medicine, it doesn't always taste good going down, but it's meant to make us better". Ultimately, his job is to teach us how to be the best player we can be and give us the opportunities to do so. The rest is on the player and whether or not they want to invest and put the work in. Sawvel can't do the drills, learn the playbook, breakdown the film, watch the film, or do the studying for us. He showed us the skills, techniques and processes that are needed to be successful, but at the end of the day, it's on the players shoulders to do it."
GopherDigest.com: What was it like to play in a secondary where you had multiple NFL guys throughout your career?
Levine: "It was great to play with guys so talented and dedicated to the game. They taught me a lot of things on the field, but ultimately, we all helped each other every day to get better. I grew very close to Cedric Thompson and we helped each other a lot. For example, where I may have been more knowledgeable in the playbook or in the film room in certain areas, Ced excelled on technique and game-play situations. So we taught each other things everyday. While I never was a starter, I was able to play in every game of my career and will have played behind all NFL safeties in Brock Vereen, Ced, Derrick Wells, Damarius Travel and Antonio Johnson when all is said and one. That's awesome to have played with such great players and men."
GopherDigest.com: Any good stories to share from your days with those guys?
Levine: "I think it'd be when the article about the hottest players in college football came out this past year. We had just finished a film session and were heading out to walk through, when Coach Melvin Rice handed us what we thought was another tip sheet. It turned out to be the article that I was in with a blown up picture of a selfie the article used of me. The whole team burst out laughing and some of the DB's had me sign the picture and they hung it up in their lockers. I never heard the end of it and continue to hear it from teammates today."
GopherDigest.com: Any idea how you were selected in that Sports Illustrated article?
Levine: "I still don't know. I talked to the woman who write it and she said she looked through the athletes herself and picked them. A lot of people used to think I submitted it or something, but I just joke around and tell them I would have submitted a better picture if I had anything to do with it. I don't know how she came across me, but I can only imagine the time it took her to look through so many college football players. I just think it's pretty funny now. It doesn't stop me from joking around with any teammates about it as so many of them claim to be "The Selfie King" and do "Selfie competitions" on Instagram. I'm always sure to let them know who the real king is."
GopherDigest.com: So what's next for Grayson Levine after graduating and now moving on from football?
Levine: "I graduated from Carlson with a degree in marketing, but I'm traveling this summer and starting to interview this fall for hopefully a sales position. My family was blessed enough to not have to pay for my college tuition as it was covered by my scholarship, so my dad told me he would finance my traveling for the summer since I have the rest of my life to work. I won't be able to take a summer off once I start working, so my dad encouraged me to travel and it wasn't hard to take his advice! I went to Europe for a month in May and went to Italy, Austria, France, the Netherlands, England and Ireland. For the rest of the summer, I'm going to Florida, Yellowstone, New York City, Washington D.C. and Jamaica.
GopherDigest.com: Are their any final thoughts you want Gopher fans to know?
Levine: "Trust in the process and just like Kill says, buy in. Support the program. Go to games. Cheer on Minnesota's teams. Kill will accomplish the mission. He will bring back the Big Ten championship back to the state of Minnesota. Go Gophers!"
The Fifth Quarter: Grayson Levine
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