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.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill took time in the middle of one of his youth football camps to meet with the media on Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium. Among the news items:
* Sophomore WR Andre McDonald, who missed spring practice and was not enrolled in school because of a personal matter, is in summer school and working out. “So I feel cautiously optimistic he’ll be ready to go” when fall camp opens Aug. 1.
* Kill indicated the biggest questions health-wise are OL Jonah Pirsig (knee surgery), WR Devon Wright (shoulder surgery), C Brian Bobek (viral infection), Zach Mottla (compound leg fracture) and Peter Westerhaus (lingering health concerns).
* Kill said the Gophers have 17 players recovering from surgery. That list includes OL Jon Christenson (ankle) and OL Zac Epping (elbow), but it sounds like they’ll be ready to go Aug. 1.
* Bobek, a transfer from Ohio State, missed much of spring camp and still hasn’t recovered. “He had a real, real serious viral infection,” Kill said. “And I think a lot of that’s gone around the country, but some of that stuff’s taken months and months -- two months, three months -- so it’s a very serious deal. So we’ll just see what they say. Right now, if we were starting tomorrow, he couldn’t go. We hope by camp he’s ready but that’s where we’re at right now.”
* The football team’s 994 APR (Academic Progress Rate) score for the 2011-12 school year was a program record. A 1,000 APR is considered perfect, and the football team has bounced back from a 917 score a few years ago that resulted in the loss of three scholarships. Last June, the Gophers narrowly avoided the same penalty with a 932 multi-year APR score, but this year’s multi-year score (spanning years from 2008-2012) was a 955.
“Someday I’ll write a book on it because to go where we were at, where we were one player away from losing scholarships -- having 25 people on academic warning and three suspended -- and now all of a sudden where we’re at, with basically only 30 new kids in the program," Kill said. "... I give credit to the kids, and I give credit to the coaches and then the academic people.”
Kill added, “All we did as a coaching staff is we held them accountable. We made them go to class, be on time and do what they’re supposed to.”
The Gophers football team moved Saturday's 10 a.m., practice from TCF Bank Stadium to the Gibson-Nagurski indoor complex, but they still plan to hold their second full-contact scrimmage.
Like all spring practices, it'll be open to the public.
"It'll be similar to [last] Friday night," Coach Jerry Kill said. "Maybe not as long, a little shorter, but we’ll get some crisp work and get out."
The Gophers have been stuck inside for every spring practice, but there is still hope of playing the April 27 Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers have given Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner a large majority of the snaps this spring, and it figures to be more of the same through the spring game. Third stringer Chris Streveler still has a lot to learn as an early enrollee.
"Chris is right where we need him to be right now as a kid coming in," Kill said. "He’s learning what to do and so forth. Right now, Philip and Mitch need to get as many reps as they can get. And really, Chris is like they were a year ago."
Continued injury concerns
Kill noted that 16 players did not practice Thursday. Unofficially, from my observation, that list included offensive linemen Ed Olson (ankle surgery), Zach Mottla (broken leg), Jonah Pirsig (knee-cap injury) and Brian Bobek (illness). All were there wearing orange non-participation jerseys.
Two players who'd been out -- LB Nick Rallis and CB Jeremy Baltazar -- were back in action.
But others wearing orange jerseys were WR Devin Crawford Tufts (reason uncertain) and WR Devon Wright (shoulder surgery), and I don't recall seeing DT Cameron Botticelli. RB James Gillum will miss the rest of the spring with a knee injury. CB Marcus Jones is recovering from knee surgery.
Kill didn't want to go through the entire list of everyone who was out and why, but it's clearly on his mind. Heading into the 11th spring practice, there were signs on the wall that said "10-0 PERSISTENCE."
"We’ve practiced well throughout spring," Kill said. "The coaches feel good about the players. The kids have worked hard and we’ve got a lot done and we’ve gotten better.
"I think the biggest concern right now is we had 16 guys not practice today. We’ve got flu, strep throat, you name it, we’ve had it. Nothing that’s going to keep us out until Aug. 1, but we’ve gotta let those kids heal. ... You want to get more physical, and you want to improve your football team, but you want to get as healthy as you can. We’re limited on some things we can do because of health issues, but every school has that in the spring."
The Gophers did pretty well on the health front through the first two weeks of spring practice, but that hasn’t been the case of late.
Running back James Gillum injured a knee in Friday’s scrimmage and might be done for the spring, Coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday.
The offensive line is banged up. Ed Olson (ankle surgery) and Zach Mottla (broken leg) have missed the whole spring, Jonah Pirsig has been out with a knee injury since April 6, Brian Bobek has missed the past four practices because of illness, and Jon Christenson is playing through a sprained ankle suffered in Friday’s scrimmage.
“The big thing is we hopefully get everybody back for the fall,” Kill said. “The way it looks we will, but those things are starting to pile up as the spring goes. So we’ve gotta be careful, but we’ve still gotta get better.”
The Gophers have four practices remaining before their April 27 spring game.
Mitch Leidner completed nine of 11 passes with one touchdown and ran for another score Friday night at the Bierman indoor practice facility, highlighting the Gophers first scrimmage of the spring.
Leidner, a redshirt freshman, had an easier time moving the second-team offense down the field than sophomore Philip Nelson did moving the first team. Nelson eventually found his groove, completing five of nine passes, setting up two touchdowns and a field goal.
“What I liked about them both is they were composed,” Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “You could tell they both had been there. They did some good things, missed a couple go routes and little things, but I saw a lot of leadership, driving the team.”
Kirkwood watches other running backs get tested
Donnell Kirkwood, who led the Gophers with 958 rushing yards last year, watched from the sideline, as the coaching staff gave a long look at their other running backs, especially David Cobb and Rodrick Williams.
Cobb drew six consecutive carries as the first-team offense went three-and-out on its first two possessions. He later broke a 40-yard touchdown run, only to have it called back with a penalty, and eventually scored on a two-yard TD plunge.
Williams had a fumble recovered by linebacker Damien Wilson but later had carries of 17 and 25 yards. James Gillum also had carries of 15 and 11 yards.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of what Donnell’s going to do ... so it was a good opportunity to up the reps of all the other guys and start trying to cull that herd a little bit,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
Another adventurous night for Gophers centers
The Gophers needed three centers to get through last season, and Friday was more of the same.
Junior center Brian Bobek missed all three practices this week after catching a flu bug that’s been going around the team. That thrust third-string center Ernie Heifort into duty with the second team, and he drew Coach Jerry Kill’s wrath after some erratic snaps to Leidner.
Jon Christenson, who has been playing center with the first-team offense, suffered an ankle injury on the first drive but didn’t miss a series. He got the ankle taped and was right back on the field.
“Jon’s a great kid,” Limegrover said. “I mean you’re going to literally have to cut a limb off for him not to come back out on the field. That’s something we’re working on as a team is toughness -- not just physical toughness but mental toughness. We don’t want them to be stupid. But at the same time, 'Can I fight through this? Is it pain or is it an injury?'”
* Third-string quarterback Chris Streveler played one series and got sacked twice by Alex Keith.
* Derrick Engel had at least three receptions, Isaac Fruechte had at least two receptions, and KJ Maye had at least two receptions. Leidner made a nice play-action play on his 10-yard TD pass to Victor Keise. Jamel Harbison also ran for a 15-yard reverse.
* Kicker Chris Hawthorne booted a 28-yard field goal.
* The Gophers next practice is Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., and the annual Spring Game is April 27.
I'll have a feature story on Gophers middle linebacker Jack Lynn in tonight's first editions. Meantime, here are some quick notes from today's practice:
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|Gopher coaches (69)||Gopher quarterbacks (50)|
|Gopher recruiting (29)||Gopher road games (18)|
|Gophers disciplinary action (9)||Gophers injuries (39)|
|Gophers on TV (3)||Gophers preseason practice (49)|
|Gophers recruiting (21)||Gophers spring football (61)|
|TCF Bank Stadium (8)||The Big 10 (59)|
|NCAA: football (5)||Gophers game day (73)|
|Gophers postgame (48)||NCAA (15)|
|Gophers awards and honors (9)||Gophers post season (6)|
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