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.
After the Gophers first spring practice Tuesday, coach Jerry Kill was asked who stood out.
"Adam Weber stood out," Kill said. "And I mean that in a positive way. I think that’s a good thing we did there [hiring Weber as a graduate assistant]. And certainly after one day’s practice, watching him work, that’s a good thing."
Weber (pictured right with quarterback Jacques Perra) is the school's all-time passing leader. Kill said Weber's presence will allow quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski to "move around a little more," with the rest of the offense.
"It’s one of the best things that can happen for us at the quarterback position," Mitch Leidner said. "Just having someone who’s been through it, someone who’s worked with some of the best in the pros, and having him here to help us with little things has been awesome."
Leidner said he also learned a lot from Ryan Maiuri, who had the team's offensive GA job the previous two years.
"He's a great guy who’s had a huge impact on my life," Leidner said.
Note: The Gophers will hold their second spring practice Thursday, but this one is closed. Beginning Saturday, all practices are open to the public. Here's a full list of the practice dates and times.
The Gophers released their spring football practice schedule. The first two sessions are closed to the public, but the final 13 are open for public viewing, including the April 11 spring game. Here's the full schedule, with dates and times subject to change:
March 3, 4 p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex (Closed to the public)
March 5, 4:15 p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex (Closed to the public)
March 7, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 10, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 12, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 24, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 26, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 28, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 31, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 2, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 4, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 7, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 9, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 10, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 11, 3 p.m. – Spring Game, TCF Bank Stadium
Cameron Botticelli was a little-known walk-on from Milwaukee when he arrived at the University of Minnesota in 2010. He wound up starting 47 games for the Gophers and was named their defensive lineman of the year last season.
So go ahead and tell Botticelli that the NFL might be out of reach. He didn’t get invited to the combine last month and probably won’t be one of the 250-plus players picked in the draft.
But Botticelli will be among several recent graduates going all out Monday, when the Gophers hold their annual pro day before a throng of NFL scouts at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex.
Maxx Williams, Damien Wilson and David Cobb will look to build off their performances at the combine, though Cobb could still be limited after injuring a quad in Indianapolis.
The list of other NFL hopefuls expected to work out Monday includes Cedric Thompson, Derrick Wells, Zac Epping, Michael Amaefula, Isaac Fruechte, Donnell Kirkwood, Logan Hutton, Harold Legania, Ben Perry, Devon White and Marcus Jones. Another interesting one to watch will be Derrick Engel, who was the Gophers’ leading receiver in 2013 before tearing an ACL late that season.
Getting drafted would be a dream for all these players, but what they all want most is a chance to perform in an NFL camp.
“I’ve prepared myself all along to make my way and to create an opportunity for myself as an undrafted free agent,” Botticelli said. “Whatever opportunity I get, I will attack with every ounce of fervor [as] I have everything else to this point.”
At pro day, players will perform all the drills from the combine — including the 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump, bench press, three-cone drill and shuttle. Several of these players have been training for this since Jan. 2, the day after the team’s Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri.
That next day, Botticelli flew from Orlando to Nashville, where he worked out at the DI Sports Training complex. Botticelli, Thompson and Wilson also had a chance to impress scouts at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, Calif.
Botticelli measured 6-5, 292 pounds at the NFLPA Bowl and hopes the rest of his measurements — 40 time, etc. — hit their peak Monday. Then again, these numbers have never defined him.
Recent Super Bowls have shown the path to stardom doesn’t always include the combine. Malcolm Butler, who made the game-saving interception for New England this year, wasn’t at the combine and wasn’t drafted. Malcolm Smith, the MVP of last year’s Super Bowl for Seattle, wasn’t at the combine either and sneaked into the 2011 draft in the seventh round, at No. 242 overall.
“Some of the best things that I bring to the table can’t be measured at the combine,” Botticelli said. “As far as understanding defenses schematically, being coachable, being a positive leader. I think whoever does take a chance on me, they’re going to have to wait until they get me to camp because you can’t measure that stuff in person.”
“No matter what happens at pro day, I’m still going to have to go out and earn it the hard way, just as I’ve done here at the University of Minnesota.”
I caught up with Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys today, previewing spring practice, which starts March 3. He was in great spirits and feels very confident about the defense, even though they need to replace Damien Wilson, Cedric Thompson, Cameron Botticelli, Michael Amaefula, Derrick Wells and Co.
A few notables:
* Claeys said DT Scott Ekpe and LB Nick Rallis, two players coming off ACL surgery, will be full-go by June. Rallis provides key depth at all three linebacker spots, and Ekpe will be counted on to start at defensive tackle, alongside Steven Richardson.
* Claeys said middle linebacker is the obvious question, considering Wilson took almost all the reps there the past two seasons. He said Everett Williams and Cody Poock are both candidates to replace Wilson, and Jack Lynn could move back to the middle after starting at outside linebacker last year. Claeys said sophomore Jonathan Celestin's rapid development at outside linebacker would free up Lynn to move back to the middle, if necessary.
* The Gophers feel great about their secondary. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray are returning All-Big Ten cornerbacks. The coaches feel those two, along with safety Damarius Travis, all have NFL potential. Antonio Johnson has been a starting safety. And there is plenty of depth behind that foursome, too.
* Knowing the Gophers need to replace Amaefula at defensive end, Claeys mentioned Hank Ekpe. "He's really had a good offseason," Claeys said. "He’s as good an athlete as we’ve got on our football team." And Gaelin Elmore "continues to get better," Claeys said. "I don’t know how much weight he’s put on, but his body’s changing. I would imagine he’ll stay around the 270 mark. For how well he’s moving, we’ll leave him at defensive end."
* Also, I asked Claeys about the recent chatter about getting the NCAA to re-consider making freshmen ineligible again, and he said: “First off, if one [conference] does it, everyone needs to do it -- all Power 5 conferences. Otherwise you’re at a huge disadvantage. You’d have to tell them, 'You’re going to sit out here, but you can go to Missouri or somewhere like that and play right away as a freshman?'
“Number two, back when there was freshman ineligibility [before 1972], they also had more scholarships. So in our opinion, you’re going to have to increase scholarships because we’re going to go to battle. We probably play 8-10 freshmen each year, so they better jump that up, increase the scholarship numbers to 95 or whatever.”
When the Gophers open spring practice March 3, many eyes will be drawn to the quartet of wide receivers who redshirted last fall -- Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland and Jerry Gibson.
The Gophers have struggled at receiver, and they need to replace Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones. Drew Wolitarsky and KJ Maye are back, but after that, there's no wide receiver on the roster who caught more than one pass last year.
Coach Jerry Kill has raved about his redshirt freshmen quartet. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was more measured when I spoke to him this week.
“I know Coach [Kill] is pretty high on them, and I can see why,” Limegrover said. “Are they going to be complete receivers on April 11? Probably not. Are they going to be complete receivers on Sept. 1? Probably not. You’ve got to get through the growing pains with them, let them work against a darn good secondary for the next six months.”
That's a great point about the secondary. These receivers will need to be good if they're going to catch passes against the likes of Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Jalen Myrick and Craig James. The Gophers would put those cornerbacks up against anybody.
"[The redshirt freshmen receivers] work really hard," Limegrover said. "They put in extra time with the quarterbacks, and hopefully that’s going to pay off. We’ll see exactly how far they’ve come obviously in the spring, but they’re doing the right things.
"All of them have the potential to be very complete receivers. ... One of them probably will [emerge] a little quicker than the others. I can’t sit here and say right now which one that will be. One will impress a little bit sooner, one may take a little longer. But the one that takes longer, maybe by the end of his career, he'll be the one that continues to steadily increase and becomes the best one of the group.
"It’s just hard to say who that is at this point. I just like watching them run around, that’s for sure."
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