Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Ill., identical twins Julian and Jacob Huff turned heads on the football field, but not typically at the same time.
If one of the twins played well, the other usually struggled.
“It’s always been a running joke in our family,” said Jacob, a Gophers senior defensive back. “Even before college in high school, it was like one of us was hot and one of us was cold.”
The Huff brothers have been models of hard work and academic achievement for the Gophers. They’re still waiting for that one season when they can make an impact together on the field. They have one last shot as seniors.
“We’re looking forward to both of us being hot,” Jacob said. “That’s the plan.”
Julian was in the Gophers linebacker rotation earlier in his career, even starting a couple games in 2015 and 2016. But he went from 52 tackles combined his first two years to just 11 battling injuries last season.
Meanwhile, Jacob went from seven combined tackles as a freshman and sophomore to a breakout junior year with 65 tackles and a team-best three interceptions in 2017.
“Jacob really hit the ground running when [Gophers coach P.J.] Fleck came in,” Julian said. “I was late to the party coming off an ankle surgery, and then having another foot surgery later that spring.”
Dealing with injuries and the adjustment of playing for three head coaches (Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys and Fleck) made it hard for the Huff twins to find stability to begin their college career. Having family nearby helped.
Their older sister and brother, Jan and Jaden, lived in Minnesota and went to St. Cloud State. Jaden played football there for two years before transferring to Northern Illinois.
“Your first year or so in college is a real big adjustment period,” said Jaden, a redshirt senior running back at Northern Illinois. “We were able to bring a family dynamic up there. So the adjustment wasn’t as hard for them.”
Although he’s never started a game for Minnesota, Jacob is ready for a leadership role and likely will be the starting safety alongside Antoine Winfield Jr. He credits mentors such as former Gophers standouts like Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Eric Murray and Damarius Travis, who made the NFL.
“Those were the guys who I strived to be,” Jacob said. “They had so much knowledge about the game, and they were in the film room more than anyone on the team. And it showed. Being behind those guys and being a sponge really helped me at the end of my career.”
Julian’s battling to start at weakside linebacker with fellow senior Blake Cashman, now both finally healthy.
“We are well balanced on the defense having leaders like Carter Coughlin on the D-line, myself and Thomas Barber with the linebackers,” Julian said.
Gophers fans might recall Julian’s freshman debut with seven tackles against Texas Christian in 2015. Three years later, that still is his best tackling total, but Julian (6-foot, 225 pounds) and Jacob (5-11, 210) don’t only judge themselves on football exploits.
Julian, an All-Big Ten academic selection last season, graduated in three years with an applied economics degree and is in a graduate certification program in nonprofit management. Jacob, a business and marketing major, interned with Northwestern Mutual this summer.
The Huffs bought into Fleck’s culture from the start and set examples for teammates to follow off the field, so they’re confident the consistent play together on the field will come soon.
“Coach talks about all areas of your life athletically, academically, spiritually and socially,” Jacob said. “Once all the other stuff comes together, then everything on the field translates. If you’re a good player and smart player, you follow the culture, you’re able to make plays and play well.”