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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Gophers coach Jerry Kill delivered a few news items today, during the taping of his radio show with Mike Grimm and Justin Gaard. The show will air tonight on 100.3-FM at 7 p.m., on the eve of the annual Spring Game:
- Center Jon Christenson, who broke his leg last Nov. 2, is expected to be ready to go “full-tilt” by June. Kill called Christenson "a critical piece" of the team and said the job he's done with his rehab is unbelievable.
- Tommy Olson has taken over as the starter at center and taken his game to a new level. “So that gives us flexibility to move Jon [Christenson] to guard,” Kill said. Christenson started six games at left guard in 2012.
- LB Cody Poock had surgery to repair his torn ACL on Thursday. The medical staff “said he’s got a chance to get ready for the Big Ten season, so we’ll just have to see,” Kill said.
- Asked to name a player fans might not know about now who has a chance to emerge this season, Kill listed redshirt freshman LB Rayfield Dixon, incoming freshman DL Steven Richardson, and T Jonah Pirsig.
Note: For the Spring Game (Saturday at 2:30 p.m., TCF Bank Stadium), the Gophers plan to pit the offense vs. the defense in a scrimmage format. It’ll be full-contact, except for the quarterbacks, of course. The team plans to keep stats but won’t be keeping score, with defensive points or anything like that. If it's anything like last Saturday's scrimmage, the starters will see a lot of playing time, and it's going to be a key test for players fighting for jobs.
The Gophers need to replace departing senior Chris Hawthorne at place-kicker this fall, and the two leading candidates are redshirt freshmen – Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte. Both kickers were perfect in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Santoso nailed both of his field goal attempts – from 26 and 46 yards – along with an extra point. Harte hit a 43-yard field goal and was 4-for-4 on his extra point attempts.
The defense looked very good early in the scrimmage, and the offense had some explosive plays later in the scrimmage, but Coach Jerry Kill referenced the kicking game, saying, “That’s probably the thing I was most excited about.”
Santoso was an Under Armour All-American for Pace High School in Florida and came to the Gophers with a scholarship. He also punted in high school, but with Peter Mortell excelling last year as a sophomore punter, Santoso has been able to focus on place-kicking.
Harte is a walk-on from Montini Catholic in Downers Grove, Ill. He has a pretty standard build for a kicker – 6-foot, 180 pounds – but Santoso is 6-5, 255 pounds. Santoso has actually trimmed down considerably from when he first arrived on campus last summer.
“He’s a totally different looking guy,” Kill said earlier this spring. “He’s kind of like the big kid playing basketball, [Mo] Walker. It’s unbelievable what his body looks like. You talk about somebody who’s made a commitment. We’ll see how it turns out.”
One week before their annual spring game, the Gophers held their most extensive scrimmage of spring practice Saturday.
The defense dominated early, keeping the offense without a point for the first seven drives. But the Gophers started running their hurry-up offense, and converted several big plays.
Here were some notable highlights:
- Cedric Thompson made a terrific interception to halt the first drive.
- Ryan Santoso made field goals of 26 and 46 yards. Andrew Harte hit a 43-yard field goal, and those two combined to make every extra point. Those two are both redshirt freshmen.
- Mitch Leidner hit KJ Maye with a 50-yard touchdown pass.
- Donnell Kirkwood had rushes for 7, 8, 37, 9, 19 and 10 yards.
- Chris Streveler completed a 32-yard pass to Eric Carter
- Rodrick Williams had touchdown runs of 7 and 15 yards.
- Berkley Edwards had 49-yard touchdown run.
- Logan Hutton made a big diving catch on a throw by Conor Rhoda.
- Leidner added a 29-yard touchdown run.
For more perspective, noting which defense was on the field for each drive, etc., here’s a summation from my play-by-play notes:
First-offense (Leidner at QB) vs. first defense
Cobb: 2 rushes, 16 yards.
Kirkwood: 1 rush, 7 yards
Last play: Leidner threw a pass for Plsek that got tipped, and Cedric Thompson intercepted it with an acrobatic play.
The Gophers announced today that Saturday's practice (11:20 a.m., Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex) will be the final one open to the public and media before the April 12 spring game.
The team can practice up to three times next week before the spring game (since teams are allowed up to 15 spring practice sessions) but anything between the next two Saturdays is closed.
The spring game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m., at TCF Bank Stadium, and will be telecast on Big Ten Network.
Ndondo-Lay making his mark
As a beat writer, I'll take any access I can get, of course. One under-the-radar player who has stood out to me this spring, for example, is Robert Ndondo-Lay. He's a redshirt junior defensive lineman from Minneapolis DeLaSalle who transferred to Minnesota last summer from Winona State.
He's a 6-5 athlete in a No. 69 jersey, and the tenacity he has charging the quarterback, if not the skill, reminds you a bit of Jared Allen. Ndondo-Lay has the size to play defensive tackle and the speed to play defensive end. He's had a ton of reps this spring with defensive end Hank Ekpe out with a virus and defensive tackle Shoobee Timms out with a hamstring injury.
"He is a high-motor guy; he plays hard," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said of Ndondo-Lay. "When you have his size and you play hard, it gives you an opportunity. And if he continues to develop like he has, he will give us a chance to rotate our front four like we’ve wanted to.
"He’s played a little bit of defensive end, and he’s played some defensive tackle. So he really could help us in either place, if we got into a jam. So he’ll have a role on the team by the time we get to the fall."
The Gophers plucked two football recruits from Alabama this year, and if you’re wondering how on Earth that happened, it starts with a recruiting staff spending countless hours, studying video and establishing contact with the right players.
It includes the tireless efforts of assistant coach Jay Sawvel, one of the team’s top recruiters, and of course, head coach Jerry Kill.
But the Gophers have a secret weapon now, too. His name is KJ Maye.
When Maye signed with the Gophers in 2012, out of Murphy High School in Alabama, it was a rarity. From what I could gather on the Rivals.com database, Maye was just the second Gophers signee from Alabama since 2002. The other was Ralph Spry, who lasted two seasons under Tim Brewster before leaving the program.
Maye has yet to make a huge mark on the field for the Gophers, as he was limited with a sports hernia as a sophomore last year. But the former high school quarterback looks like he’s back to full speed after surgery. He has been the team’s best slot receiver in spring camp.
Listening to offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover on Tuesday, I started to realize Maye’s importance to the team.
“He’s such a positive vibe guy that we missed some of that [last fall] -- his athletic ability, his positive energy -- we’re just happy to have it all back right now, without a doubt,” Limegrover said.
The fact Maye is having a good experience at Minnesota only helps the Gophers with recruiting. This year, they signed Jerry Gibson, a 6-3, 220-pound tight end out of Theodore, Ala., who had an offer from Steve Spurrier at South Carolina.
And they also landed Gary Moore, a 6-4, 285-pound defensive lineman from Murphy High School – Maye’s alma mater. Kill calls him “Baby Ra’Shede.”
“Yeah,” Maye said Tuesday. “If you see him, you’ll say the same thing.”
Moore was committed to Southern Mississippi but flipped his commitment to the Gophers.
“I knew I could get him here because Gary grew up playing with me,” Maye said. “He was on the D-line, when I was at quarterback, and he was kind of lazy, and I’d get after him. I kind of motivated him to play to his potential, being that big.”
It’s not just Alabama. Over the past two years, the Gophers have signed five players out of Georgia, thanks to the recruiting of assistant coach Brian Anderson. That list includes WR Donovahn Jones, S Daletavious McGhee, CB Jalen Myric, LB Jonathan Celestin and RB Rodney Smith.
Those players might love everything they hear from the coaching staff, but it helps when they can hear it from a player from that part of the country, too.
“Coming from the South to the North, the biggest thing was the weather,” Maye said. “So once you get here, you go through a full winter, all that stuff, it’s tough. But once you get used to it, you’re fine because it’s a good school and a good program.”
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