Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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Amid all the new players running around the practice field for the Gophers' first practice on Saturday, one stood out. Who exactly is No. 23, the defensive back who was all over the field, making physical plays (sometimes a little too physical, even) and harassing the wideouts, even coming down with a pair of interceptions against quarterback Max Shortell?
Turns out, he's not new at all. It's Michael Carter, the senior cornerback from Florida, who seems intent upon keeping the momentum he built up with a strong performance in spring workouts. Carter switched from No. 6 to No. 23 in the offseason -- like I wasn't having enough trouble remembering everyone's number -- but he's just as energetic in coverage as he looked in April. (He wasn't the only one with a new number. Among the changes I saw, Troy Stoudermire is wearing No. 2, and Kendall Gregory-McGhee reversed his old No. 91 to wear 19.)
A big senior year from Carter would be an enormous help to the Gophers, considering how little impact he made as a junior -- nine tackles in five games, with no picks or even a break-up. And judging from the way he was pestering the receivers and forcing turnovers, he's planning to make it happen.
The only play I saw Carter get beat on, as a matter of fact, was by another senior looking to increase his role. Brandon Green made a spectacular diving catch on a 25-yard sideline route from MarQueis Gray, coincidentally with Carter bumping him as he reached for the ball. One of the most memorable plays during a fairly quiet first day.
Of course, nobody wants to watch the returnees on the first day -- sizing up the newcomers is the best part. And the Gophers are understandably optimistic about those 36 newcomers. I thought offensive lineman Isaac Hayes looked larger than I expected -- and then I saw him stand next to 6-9, 300-pounder Jonah Pirsig. Wow, that's some serious size.
James Gillum was getting first-team reps with the offense and looked good until he twisted an ankle late in the practice. He didn't get another snap, but said he's fine. And receivers Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald were all over the field; it's not difficult to spot their extraordinary athleticism. Gopher coaches obviously would like to redshirt them, but that's going to take a lot of willpower.
Brendan Beal, Jimmy Gjere, Marcus Jones and Josh Campion have all recovered from relatively serious injuries, and all were practicing Saturday. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson didn't seem bothered by the sore hamstring that Jerry Kill warned about; his connection with practice partner Isaac Fruechte was obvious, too.
The Gophers' second practice, also open to the public, is Sunday morning at 10:25 at the Gibson-Nagurski practice field.
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