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 notes: Kill confident facilities construction will begin in August; injury updates

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gopher coaches, Gophers injuries, Gophers recruiting Updated: February 13, 2015 - 12:52 PM

Jerry Kill continues to have full confidence that the University of Minnesota will be ready to break ground on its new $150 athletic facilities project in August.

“I expect [the shovel] to be in the ground during two-a-day camp,” Kill said Friday. “That’s what I’ve said all along, and I expect that to happen. … I’ve told the recruits, and so it needs to get done.”

University CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter said last week that as with any university project, at least 80 percent of the money ($120 million) must be raised before construction can begin. Athletics Director Norwood Teague said $70 million has been raised thus far.

A Board of Regents document released last week states that a complete financing plan must be ready for approval at the June 11-12 Regents meeting in order to begin construction by October.

“I think when the board finalizes it in June, they should be able to get going immediately,” Kill said. “I don’t know the 80 percent rule, 70 percent rule, 90 percent rule -- that’s their job to figure all that out. They know we need to get it started in August.”

This week, the Board of Regents approved using $15 million of the money already raised for the project’s schematic design.

“That’s tremendous,” Kill said. “Right there, that tells you. Once you do that, things move pretty fast.”

INJURY UPDATES

* Offensive lineman Jon Christenson had a rod inserted into his left leg when he broke his tibia and fibula in a gruesome injury in November 2013. Christenson returned last season and started the Citrus Bowl at right guard. Christenson recently had the rod removed from the leg. The Gophers plan to withhold him from spring practice, but Kill said Christenson “will be a starter” again this fall.

* Cody Poock, who tore the ACL in his right knee last March, will be at full speed for spring practice and is a candidate to replace departing senior Damien Wilson as the starting middle linebacker.

* Duke Anyanwu, who tore the ACL in his right knee early in August, also has been cleared for spring practice, Kill said. Anyanwu is one of several candidates the Gophers are counting on to help replace NFL-bound tight end Maxx Williams.

* Scott Ekpe, who tore an ACL in last year’s season opener, is also making good progress but likely will be limited during spring ball. “We know what he can do,” Kill said. “We’ll make sure he’s healed up. He may get a few reps, but we’re going to be careful there.” The Gophers need to replace Cameron Botticelli, but they expect to have Ekpe and Steven Richardson back as their starting defensive tackles.

Fundraising for facilities project is 'way ahead of schedule,' says Gophers AD

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gophers, NCAA Updated: February 12, 2015 - 12:57 PM

Gophers Athletics Director Norwood Teague said Thursday that fundraising for the $150 million athletics facilities project is “way ahead of schedule,” noting that $70 million has been raised in about 10 months.

Teague gave an update before the Board of Regents Facilities and Operations Committee approved using $15 million of the money already raised for schematic design.

“I feel very good about the pace that we’re on,” Teague said after the meeting. “Our fundraising is way ahead of schedule. I am thrilled with the money we’ve brought in thus far, and I’m thrilled with the prospects of our timeline.”

Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Werle said, “We’re still hoping to break ground [by the] end of the summer. That’s our goal.”

Others have noted that fundraising for this project is going much quicker than when the Gophers were raising money to build TCF Bank Stadium.

Last week, University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said as with any project, 80 percent of the money – in this case $120 million – needs to be raised before construction can begin. The other 20 percent can be financed and paid off through continued fundraising, he explained.

 “We’re going to get it done,” Regent Thomas Devine said. “We’re going to make sure that we deliver a product here.

“And I think certainly when we look at the arms race that we’re in – those of us that have traveled to the other schools in the Big Ten, and we know what’s going on in the SEC – this is an important step for the university. And the commitment’s there from this board and from the president.”

The Gophers originally unveiled this as a $190 million project in July 2013. After laying the groundwork with potential donors, the Gophers didn't begin making official asks until last summer. Teague insists the project hasn’t been scaled back – the goal is still to raise $190 million – but acknowledged there are components that will be updated after this first $150 million phase.

Those include practice facility upgrades for men and women’s golf, baseball, women’s gymnastics and wrestling, as well as renovations for the old indoor football complex, which is currently being used by eight teams. The Gophers are also looking at a new interim and long-term home for the track teams.

The $150 million phase will build a new indoor football complex, a new basketball facility, and an academic and nutrition “Excellence Center,” for all 750 Gophers athletes.

Regent Dean Johnson thanked Teague for the work he and his department have done.

“I know this has not been an easy mountain to climb,” Johnson said. “And yet, I believe on behalf of the university, and the state of Minnesota, this is much needed.

“When this issue comes up in public, one of the first things I indicate is this is done with private funds, foundation money -- no tax dollars or no tuition -- and I think it’s very important to state that for the general public.”

Gophers to hold spring game on April 11

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gophers spring football Updated: February 11, 2015 - 1:54 PM

The Gophers football team announced Wednesday that it will start spring practice March 3 and hold its annual spring game April 11 at TCF Bank Stadium.

These are similar dates to last year, when the Gophers opened spring practice March 4 and held their spring game April 12. One year earlier, Gophers spring practice lasted from March 26-April 27.

Coach Jerry Kill cited several benefits of moving the schedule up, including the fact players would have more time to heal for fall camp in case of injury.

Michigan will open spring practice on Feb. 24 this year under Jim Harbaugh. The Gophers plan to announce their full practice schedule soon.

Wilson looking forward to NFL Combine, sees chance to boost his draft stock

Posted by: Joe Christensen under NFL draft, Gophers post season Updated: February 10, 2015 - 11:57 AM

As first cousins, teammates and roommates, former Gophers Damien Wilson and David Cobb have gotten to know each other inside and out. Last October, when I visited their two-bedroom apartment on University Avenue, I asked Cobb to share something about Wilson that might surprise people.

"He likes to bake," Cobb said, chuckling. "Red-velvet cakes and cookies. I’ve got a sweet tooth, but it’s not just me. If he makes a batch of cookies, we already know -- if it's 16, he gets eight and I get eight. And that probably lasts maybe three minutes."

I caught up with Wilson on Monday and asked him if he's done any baking out in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he and Cobb are living now, getting ready for next week's NFL Combine.

"No, no, no, no!" Wilson said. "We can’t make cookies anymore. We had to cut back on that for a while. ... Maybe after we both get drafted, we can celebrate with a batch of cookies."

Wilson said he and Cobb have been working out six days per week. They are up at 7 each morning for elaborate workouts in Carson, Calif., at the Exos training complex, which was formerly known as API (Athletes Performance Institute).

The 6-2 Wilson shed 10 pounds before his senior season and played at 240 pounds last year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and ranked third in the conference with 9.2 tackles per game.

Wilson has been working to add more explosiveness, but he's maintaining his weight at 240.

"[Linebackers] in the NFL have a wide range," he said. "Some guys are playing at 265. Some are playing at 220-230. I feel like 240 is about perfect for me. I think it’s just about making plays and understanding concepts at the next level and being able to move around comfortable at the weight you are at."

Ever since they were kids, Wilson and Cobb have pushed each other to be great.

"I’ll give you an example," Wilson said. "[Monday] at about 2'oclock, we had just finished our lifting workouts, and we were about to go home. Dave stopped me and said, 'Damien, come back. Let’s get some abs in.' Next thing you know we're doing 200 situps right there."

That was their old summertime routine, when they were getting ready for high school training camp.

"We push each other to do that little extra -- that 10 percent to give it 110 percent," Wilson said.

Wilson has known since December that he'd be headed for the NFL Combine, which runs Feb. 17-23 in Indianapolis. He'll be joined by Cobb and former Gophers teammate Maxx Williams. Cobb continued turning heads last month at the Senior Bowl, and Williams has drawn first-round draft projections. Wilson is one of those players who has a chance to boost his stock the most.

"It's pretty sweet, knowing I’ll get a chance to go out there and strut my stuff," Wilson said.

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