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.
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.”
It's been more than seven weeks since National Signing Day, but the Gophers just added another member to their 2014 recruiting class. Ra'Shaun Croney, a defensive back from Pahokee, Fla., faxed his national letter of intent to Minnesota today, the Star Tribune has confirmed.
Croney, who is rated as a three-star recruit in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, becomes the 21st member of this year's Gophers recruiting class. He had offers from South Carolina and Arkansas, but those schools backed off when it looked like he wouldn't qualify academically.
He signed with Ellsworth (Iowa) Community College, but his grades have been on the rise, so the Gophers invited him in for an official visit last weekend. They were hoping to get one more defensive back for this class to go along with Craig James, and now they have him.
Gophers linebacker Cody Poock has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, a person familiar with his injury said Monday.
The team was finalizing the diagnosis, with Coach Jerry Kill expected to address the injury with the media after Tuesday’s practice.
Poock suffered the injury at Saturday's practice. On Sunday, he posted on his Twitter page (@codyallenpoock), “Everything happens for a reason.”
It’s a tough blow for the Gophers, as Poock had been playing with the first-team defense, alongside linebackers Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell.
Poock is expected to have surgery soon, and his ability to return this fall will depend on how he heals. Last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan suffered a torn ACL injury in spring practice. He had surgery March 28 and was back playing again for the Wolverines on Oct. 12.
Gophers cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun tore his ACL in the season’s second game last year (Sept. 7 at New Mexico State) and he already has seen time in 11-on-11 drills this spring.
Poock still has three years of eligibility remaining after transferring from Iowa Western Community College. He had the grades to play Division I coming out of Spirit Lake High School last year but didn’t get the offers he wanted, so he went the junior college route.
He made 80 tackles for an 11-1 Iowa Western team and picked Minnesota over TCU. This spring, he quickly emerged as the leading candidate to replace departing senior Aaron Hill at strong-side linebacker.
Nick Rallis, a redshirt sophomore from Edina, filled in for Poock with the first-team defense for the rest of Saturday’s practice. The Gophers have been pleased with Ray Dixon’s play with the second-team defense, making him another candidate to replace Poock.
With Wilson entrenched at middle-linebacker for one more year, it’s also possible the Gophers could move his backup, Jack Lynn, to an outside spot this fall.
Drew Wolitarsky quickly emerged as a go-to receiver for the Gophers last fall as a true freshman, and his growth continues to show this spring.
Wolitarsky made two impressive plays in Tuesday's practice, turning one pass from Mitch Leidner on a slant pattern into a long gain. Moments later, the 6-3 Wolitarsky made a diving catch. He added another diving catch Thursday on a pass from Conor Rhoda, giving that unit a key third-down conversion.
At moments like that, you're reminded that Wolitarsky is California's all-time high school leader in career receptions (281) and receiving yardage (5,148).
"Drew’s had a great spring so far," Coach Jerry Kill said. "You don’t realize he’s 225 pounds and a very storng kid. As you play as a freshman, it’s a learning curve, but you build some confidence up, and he’s a really, really good football player."
Note: The Gophers will hold Spring Practice No. 8 on Saturday at 11:20 a.m., in the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. All spring practices are open to the public.
Chip Scoggins came to practice Tuesday, and I promised him he’d see something electrifying from Berkley Edwards. I was convinced Edwards was good for at least one of these moments per day after watching the first five spring practices.
Alas, Edwards didn’t break a long one this time, but Rodrick Williams burst through the line at one point and darted for the sideline on a long run. Slowed by a turf toe injury last fall, he’s definitely running better this spring and looks like he’s on a mission.
On March 8, the 5-11, 235-pound Williams ran right over linebacker Cody Poock on a run, then shouted at the defense, “Give me somebody who wants to hit!”
On the next play, Williams had an excellent block in pass protection and drew immediate praise from Coach Jerry Kill. Blocking was a real weakness for Williams in 2012 as a freshman, so he’s come a long way.
“Competition makes everybody get after it, that’s for sure,” Kill said, noting that the battle for playing time is especially fierce at running back.
David Cobb is coming off a 1,200-yard season. Edwards -- while only 5-9, 190 pounds -- looks like something entirely new and dynamic for the offense. And Donnell Kirkwood is running much better after spraining his ankle in last year’s season opener. Don’t forget: Kirkwood led this team with 926 rushing yards just two seasons ago.
And then there’s incoming freshman Jeff Jones – the program’s highest rated recruit in ages.
Cobb and Kirkwood are seniors this fall, but between Edwards, Jones and Williams, the team’s running game appears to be in good hands for the foreseeable future.
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