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.
Every Gophers athletics team received passing marks Tuesday, when the NCAA released its annual Academic Progress Rate (APR) report, and guard Malik Smith moved one step closer to gaining immediate eligibility after transferring from Florida International University.
FIU’s men’s basketball team received a one-year postseason ban for posting a multi-year APR score of 858, well below the 900 cutoff point. Athletes who transfer from a team that is banned from the postseason can get a waiver from the NCAA to compete at their new school without having to sit out a year.
The Gophers have filed for that waiver on Smith's behalf. He averaged 14.1 points as a junior last season for FIU and set a single-season school record by making 96 three pointers.
The latest NCAA multi-year numbers examine the school years from 2008-09 to 2011-12. FIU is paying the price for academic struggles under Isiah Thomas, the coach who preceded Richard Pitino.
Pitino has been credited for helping turn around FIU academically, as well as on the court, before becoming the new Gophers coach.
The annual APR offers a snapshot of how each team is performing academically. The Gophers football team’s multi-year APR increased from 932 last year to 955 this year. In 2009, under then-coach Tim Brewster, the Gophers posted a multi-year APR of 915 and were penalized with a loss of scholarships.
This year, five Gophers teams received perfect 1,000 scores -- baseball, men’s tennis, women’s basketball, women’s gymnastics and women’s soccer. Other notable Gophers scores included 955 for men’s basketball and 987 for men’s hockey.
The first four-team College Football Playoff is coming after the 2014 season, and the Big Ten doesn't want to miss it.
By adding TCU to their 2014 and 2015 schedules, the Gophers were complying with the Big Ten's desire to strengthen non-conference schedules. Every team in the league -- including Rutgers and Maryland, who join in 2014 -- has at least one BCS opponent on its non-conference schedule for 2014.
That might help the Big Ten from getting overlooked when selection day comes for that first four-team tourney.
David Benedict, the Gophers executive associate athletics director, noted what could have happened last season, when Ohio State went 12-0. With a season like that, assuming they were bowl eligible, Big Ten teams should expect to land one of those coveted four College Football Playoff spots.
But because of the Big Ten's weak showing in non-conference play, there would have been no guarantees for the Buckeyes last season. After the conference championship games, Alabama was 13-1, Notre Dame was 12-1, Oregon was 12-1 and there were four two-loss teams from the SEC (Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida).
"I think the Big Ten doesn’t want to be in a position like last year, where we were the fourth-ranked conference in the country at the end of the season," Benedict said. "And we don’t want to be in position where our best team is on the outside looking in, come the end of the year.
"And the reality is, if we don’t make sure the league is scheduling the way we’ve now set it up, there’s a chance that we could be on the outside looking in. And we cannot as a league let that happen."
Bob Stein, an All-American defensive end for the Gophers in 1967, is one of 77 former FBS-level players on this year’s College Football Hall of Fame ballot.
Stein, 65, was a two-time First Team All-Big Ten selection for the Gophers and a National Scholar Athlete. He played in the NFL from 1969-1975 and was part of Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs team that defeated the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Stein went on to become the first president of the Timberwolves and remains a Twin Cities attorney.
This year’s Hall of Fame class will be announced on May 7.
NOTABLE VIKINGS ON THE LIST
The ballot includes at least six players with ties to the Vikings: Bob Berry (Oregon QB), Eric Bieniemy (Colorado RB), Ted Brown (North Carolina State RB), Randall Cunningham (UNLV QB/Punter), D.J. Dozier (Penn State RB), Darrin Nelson (Stanford RB).
To see the entire ballot, click here.
Former Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray is trying to impress teams ahead of next month’s NFL Draft, but he acknowledged Monday that he’s still recovering from a left-ankle injury.
Gray lowered his 40-yard dash time to 4.67 seconds at Minnesota’s annual Pro Day, down from 4.73 seconds at last month’s NFL Combine. He said when the ankle is fully recovered, his time should be closer to 4.5 seconds.
The high-ankle sprain he suffered last season was starting to feel better before he re-aggravated it in the bowl game, Gray said. He went from there to Florida to train for the combine.
“It’s getting there, but I just don’t have time to rest it right now because I’m working every day,” Gray said.
Gray went through drills at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end Monday, with officials from 13 NFL teams, including the Vikings, on hand to watch. What position gives Gray the best shot at the next level?
“I really have no idea,” he said. “At the combine, I did some good things throwing the ball. And today, I did some good things catching the ball. So I look at that as a double win for me. Being athletic and being able to do some of the things I’ve done -- that’s a positive for me.”
Gray made it clear he’s willing to play whatever position an NFL team wants. But if he had his pick?
“I’m always going to be a quarterback,” he said. “I love playing quarterback. Receiver’s probably my second one because I don’t have to get into a three-point stance. But if a coach asks me to do it [at tight end], then it’s something I’m going to have to do.”
In coming weeks, Gray could get asked to work out for various NFL teams at their facilities. He'll keep trying to improve his stock. The draft is April 25-27.
OTHER GOPHER NOTABLES
Keanon Cooper had the fastest 40-yard dash time of all the former Gophers working out Monday. The linebacker was clocked at 4.50 seconds, and that was with a sore hamstring.
Cornerback Troy Stoudermire was second at 4.51 seconds. Linebacker Mike Rallis and cornerback Michael Carter both were clocked at 4.69 seconds. Rallis impressed with a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 4-inch broad jump.
CHECK THAT STOPWATCH!
Another player who really turned heads was former Northern Iowa receiver Terrell Sinkfield.
A running back at Hopkins High School, Sinkfield went to Northern Iowa and had a fairly quiet career. Last season, he had 43 receptions for 499 yards and four TDs.
But Sinkfield’s vertical jump Monday was 40.5 inches. His broad jump was 11-feet, 5 inches. Then came the 40-yard dash.
Sinkfield’s first attempt was 4.27 seconds. His second attempt was 4.19 seconds. The scouts couldn’t believe their stopwatches, so they made him run it again. That time, he slipped and still ran a 4.41. His average time was 4.33 seconds.
Gray, who has the same agent as Sinkfield, said he wasn’t surprised.
“We work out together,” Gray said. “I see it every day.”
Sinkfield admitted he was especially motivated, getting the chance to work out at the Gophers facility.
“Coming out of Minnesota and not really getting recruited by Minnesota, I felt like I could have been playing here,” Sinkfield said. “I came here with a chip on my shoulder.”
Based on reports coming from Monday's Big Ten meeting, here are a few key football changes that could be coming soon:
LONGER CONFERENCE SCHEDULE
Teams currently play eight conference games. That number soon could be nine or 10. Eight conference games "is not even on the table right now," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told the Chicago Tribune.
According to ESPN's Big Ten Blog, "The change likely won't be implemented until the 2016 season, two years after Maryland and Rutgers join the Big Ten."
I had heard the conference could phase this in gradually, going with a nine-game conference schedule for two years and then ramping up to 10. A final decision is expected this spring.
Minnesota perspective: Who knows where the program will be after three more seasons? But for a team that is 6-18 in the conference over the past three years, and 12-36 since 2007, this could make things more difficult. Of course, adding Rutgers and Maryland should make the conference slate less daunting. Either way, I think season ticket holders would welcome another Big Ten game on the home schedule.
There's a movement to divide teams according to time zones, which makes sense. There are eight Eastern time zone teams, and six Central time zone teams, so one Eastern team would have to shift -- perhaps Purdue or Michigan State. Imagine this:
Big Ten East: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers.
Big Ten West: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin.
Minnesota perspective: From the current Legends Division, the Gophers would lose Michigan, and gain Illinois and Wisconsin. Besides geography, the athletic directors have to factor in competitive balance -- this seems to be about a wash -- and preserving rivalries. What becomes of the Little Brown Jug? It might not be a yearly battle, if the Big Ten places a bigger priority on Michigan/Michigan State as an annual crossover game. To put it kindly, I don't think Gophers fans would miss it.
Delany also told ESPN.com that the conference isn't opposed to more night games, even in November. ... Big Ten coaches urged the NCAA to reconsider legislation that removes restrictions on the amount of calls, texts and printed materials that schools can send to recruits. ... And Urban Meyer's point about Big Ten recruiting was indeed about logistics and not effort, as ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg explains here.
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