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.
Rodrick Williams appeared to solidify himself as the Gophers' No. 1 tailback this spring, but this probably won't be a David Cobb situation, where Williams takes over and gets 24 carries per game.
I think the Gophers will look for a solid 1B to complement Williams as the 1A, and from what I gathered, the 1B is clearly Rodney Smith. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Smith emerge as the lead option by midseason.
Berkley Edwards is in the mix, but he's definitely the third option behind Williams and Smith. Jeff Jones would be right in the mix, but the Gophers have fallen in love with him as a receiver. He worked in the slot this spring, and Kill said he'd even like to get Jones some work as an outside receiver, too.
The Gophers also have three incoming freshman running backs this summer -- Shannon Brooks (from Jasper, Ga.), Jonathan Femi-Cole (Vaughan, Ont.) and James Johannesson (Fargo, N.D.). The coaches like all three of them, but if I had to bet, I think Brooks has the best chance to play this fall.
Smith is the guy I keep hearing about from people inside and outside the program. He's 5-11, 202 pounds and has plenty of speed and shiftiness. When you watch him closely, you can just tell he knows what he's doing.
His numbers weren't overwhelming in the spring game -- 12 carries for 41 yards (3.3 average). But he was working with the No. 2 offensive line, and on several carries, there just wasn't anything there. Smith had two runs that stood out, a 17 yarder and an 11 yarder where he made quick moves to get to the second level.
"We knew he was a good player," coach Jerry Kill said Wednesday during the Big Ten West media conference call. "Nobody talked about him too much, but he had a very, very good spring. I thought all our backs did a great job.
"The thing that makes [Smith] really good as a young back is his pass protection, blitz pickup, out of the backfield. Some of those things where you don’t expect it out of a freshman. Usually, you’re begging for them to pass block sometimes, but he did a good job."
Smith was unavailable to the media this spring because he has yet to play in a game. But here are two other stories I've written with background on him, one with thoughts from Matt Limegrover, and one with thoughts from Smith's high school coach in Jonesboro, Ga. Gophers followers might want to study up on Smith because they'll be hearing a lot about him this fall.
The Gophers opened spring practice March 3, so there was a lot to see before Saturday's spring game. I wrapped up the coverage with a look at what the team learned and what questions remained. This ran in the Sunday paper but didn't run online, so I am re-purposing it here.
Three things the Gophers learned
1. The no-huddle could work for them.
The players have quickly grown used to checking the sideline for the signal and running plays without huddling. It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Gophers look adept enough at it already to make it an in-season strategy option.
2. Jeff Jones looks like a go-to receiver.
The highly touted running back recruit from Minneapolis Washburn has thrived as a slot receiver this spring. He runs sharp routes, catches most everything in sight and makes tacklers miss with the ball in his hands.
3. They should be good again at running back.
Yes, they’ll miss David Cobb. But Rodrick Williams shed 20 pounds and looks like he’s on a mission. Rodney Smith is a redshirt freshman with potential to be an every down back, and the fleet footed Berkley Edwards has gotten bigger and stronger.
Three questions that remain
1. Can the defense become elite?
The Gophers will start four seniors in the secondary, including All-Big Ten cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Their linebackers look better than last year, and they should have a better pass rush, too. If it all comes together, this could be a Top 15 scoring defense.
2. Will Mitch Leidner become a better passer?
He completed just 51.5 percent of his passes last year, ranking 117th nationally among full-time quarterbacks. The new offense, with more short passing options, should help the junior get rid of the ball more quickly and get into a better rhythm. He needs to do the rest.
3. Can the redshirt freshmen receivers make a difference?
Fans have been hearing about Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland Jr., since they signed in February 2014. They redshirted last year and performed well behind the scenes. This spring, they all showed flashes, but time will tell how effective they’ll be during the season.
I'm back in the press box at TCF Bank Stadium, getting ready for the Gophers' annual spring game on a glorious spring day in Minneapolis. This reminds me of two years ago, when the weather had been cold and dreary until the day of the spring game, and an announced 8,400 people came out to watch.
We'll see what the crowd is like today. And it'll be interesting to see how the coaches dole out playing time. Last year, the first-team defense got the day off, as the last thing the coaches want is a key injury at the end of spring camp.
But I think the coaches will want another good look at the no-huddle offense, similar to what they did the previous two Saturdays in scrimmages here at the stadium. In today's paper, I wrote about how the no-huddle could help quarterback Mitch Leidner. I previewed the spring game here and noted three new players to watch:
Jeff Jones: The highly touted recruit from Minneapolis Washburn has been turning heads all spring, working as a slot receiver.
Rodney Smith: The coaches compare his vision to David Cobb’s, and the redshirt freshman should get a lot of carries Saturday.
Isaiah Gentry: The 6-4 Cincinnati Moeller graduate has the speed and skill to become a deep-play threat.
I also think this is a big day for QB Chris Streveler, RB Berkley Edwards, S Daletavious McGhee and several other backups who will get a chance to show what they can do. The coaches were bummed out when third-string QB Jacques Perra injured a thumb earlier in the week, preventing him from playing today.
When the injury first happened, the Gophers couldn't help but wonder if offensive lineman Jon Christenson would ever play football again. On Nov. 2, 2013, the Minnetonka native broke both the tibia and fibula in his left leg at Indiana.
Christenson had a long steel rod inserted into middle of his left leg -- and somehow managed to return to play 12 games last season. He played mostly on special teams, but started at right guard in the Citrus Bowl. In February, he finally had the rod removed from his leg.
Heading into his senior season, he's "rod free," as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. Christenson isn't practicing this spring as he rehabs the leg, but the Gophers are counting on him as a potential starter at either center or guard for this fall. He has made 16 career starts, switching between guard and center.
"He’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever coached," Limegrover said. "He will do whatever he needs to, to be ready to go, and he’s also a fifth-year guy. So I’m not worried about him not playing. And the big thing is, I want him feeling healthy and feeling good. He never felt healthy a single day [last] fall. He still came every day and gave everything he had.
"I think he’s one of the toughest guys I know. What he tried to do and what he did every day with that rod in his leg -- I mean, he’s got to feel like a million bucks, the fact he doesn’t have it in there."
It'll be interesting to see how things shake out in August. The first-team offensive line this spring has been LT Ben Lauer, LG Joe Bjorklund, C Brian Bobek, RG Josh Campion and RT Jonah Pirsig. The coaches have been very pleased with Bobek, but Connor Mayes has had a hard time snapping the ball as the second-team center.
Mayes, who played guard last year as a true freshman, could be the starting center in 2016 after Christenson and Bobek leave. So it makes sense that the coaches want to give Mayes lots of practice snapping the ball this spring. The starting center this fall could be the 6-2, 297-pound Bobek, the 6-5, 320-pound Mayes, or the 6-4, 296-pound Christenson. And the starting left guard could be the 6-5, 296-pound Bjorklund, Christenson or Mayes. Other candidates include the 6-2, 310-pound Isaac Hayes and the 6-4, 311-pound Tyler Moore.
Limegrover said those decisions will play out over time.
"I tell them every day that they better get up every day knowing there’s someone waiting to take their job," Limegrover said. "And if they don’t put the work in, when they put their head on the pillow, someone’s going to catch them. There’s a lot of competition in there."
The Gophers have several players injured heading into Saturday's spring game. The good news is that none of these injuries should affect these players this fall, but it's going to limit some development late in spring camp. Based on what I've gathered, here's an unofficial injury report:
QUESTIONABLE FOR SPRING GAME
QB Jacques Perra: Suffered what sounds to be a sprained right thumb in Tuesday's practice and is questionable for the spring game. That's a bummer for the Gophers because Perra likely would have had a chance to showcase what he can do Saturday.
DT Gary Moore: He broke a bone in his right hand during Tuesday's practice. Don't be surprised if he gets a cast and plays Saturday.
G Tyler Moore: He was being evaluated for a potential broken hand Wednesday. Again, I wouldn't be surprised if he still plays Saturday. The true freshman has already established himself this spring with his toughness and tenacity.
LB De’Niro Laster: He dislocated a finger last Saturday and is questionable for the spring game.
WR Desmond Gant: He has missed several practices with concussion symptoms. No word on whether he'll be able to return this week.
OUT FOR SPRING GAME
TE Brandon Lingen: Broken collarbone. This was another bummer for the Gophers, as Lingen's development this spring was going to be key for a team trying to replace Maxx Williams.
OL Jon Christenson: Rehabbing left leg after having a rod removed in February.
LB Nick Rallis: Rehabbing from an ACL injury.
DT Scott Ekpe: Rehabbing from an ACL injury. Was in pads for the first time this spring Tuesday.
OL Alex Mayes: After suffering a shoulder injury last year, Mayes has been dealing with a foot injury this spring.
WR Isaiah Gentry: He was back at full speed Tuesday after missing two practices with hamstring tightness. The spring game could be a good showcase for him.
RB Berkley Edwards: Kill has been very pleased with how Edwards has played since missing the first two weeks of spring practice with a hamstring injury.
TE Noah Scarver: A breakout player early in camp, he suffered a shoulder injury but has returned to practice.
TE Duke Anyanwu: The coaching staff marvels at how well he's doing after tearing his ACL last August.
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