The Gophers freshman football players move into their dormitories this week and on Monday will join members of the varsity not only in summer school but in regular workouts.

So after a period off, it’s time to talk some Gophers football, and I am as optimistic as I have been in some time about the team. The Gophers’ schedule doesn’t include Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State, and there are media experts predicting the Gophers will win the Big Ten West Division.

Gophers coach Tracy Claeys calls this the best team since former coach Jerry Kill came aboard and that the Gophers can win eight or nine games.

“I do feel like it’s always hard to put a number on just as far as how many games you’re going to win, but I do feel like we’ve got six good years of work into this, and I do feel like it’s our best football team overall,” Claeys said. “My goal is, and ours will be this every year, is when we get to the end of November and the last weeks of the season, that we’re still in talks to play in the Big Ten Championship Game, in other terms have a chance to win the Big Ten West.”

Claeys said a team must win at least eight games in order to be in contention for the division title each year.

“We have to stay healthy up front — we don’t have a lot of depth on the offensive line — and then play better than we did a year ago, which I expect we will,” he said. “We’ve made some changes I like and continue defensively to give ourselves a chance to win. There’s no question we’re excited about the fall getting here because we do feel like this is our best team. Two years ago we were one game away — we win at Wisconsin and we play for the Big Ten championship against Ohio State. I don’t think that’s that far off, considering this is our best team.”

O-line is the key

When Claeys was asked if there’s any positions that worry him, he focused on the team’s young offensive line and the team’s defensive backs.

“The main one is offensive line,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of depth, and we have to stay healthy. I do think we have some good younger players; some of them are going to need another year. At the same time, they may not have that opportunity and they may get thrown into the fire, but if we could buy some of them another year, that would be a big plus. I do think we have six or seven kids that we can definitely win with.

“On defense in the secondary at the safety position, we have to stay healthy and not have the injuries. Again it would just give some younger kids a year to develop before getting thrown into Big Ten competition. At those two positions if we stay healthy, I think we’ll have a chance to be there at the end and have an opportunity to win the Big Ten West.”

‘Sodbuster’ recalls Ali

Kenny Jay, the Bloomington native and former professional wrestler, got the opportunity of a lifetime in 1976 when he was recruited to take on Muhammad Ali, who died Friday.

At the time Ali was the heavyweight champion of the WBA and WBC, and Jay was recruited for an exhibition match that would feature a wrestler vs. a boxer.

“They needed a guy to take on Muhammad Ali in Chicago at the amphitheater, and they picked the Sodbuster,” Jay said, referring to his wrestling nickname.

He said the venue was huge but the crowd was a bit sparse.

“I went two rounds,” he said. “Well, I went almost two, then I got knocked out.”

 

For Jay, it was a career highlight even though it wasn’t technically a wrestling match.

“You know it was on the “Wide World of Sports,’’ it was nationwide. “I said, ‘I’m just a little old farm boy,’ I thought it was pretty awesome for me to get around like that and to take on Muhammad Ali,” Jay recalled. “He was the champion, and he was in his prime time, just like me.”

Jay said the only chance he had to speak to Ali was when they were standing in the center of the ring.

“I talked to him before they introduced us, and we talked face-to-face and we said, ‘Let the better man win,’ ” Jay said. “I really didn’t think I had a chance against him, but he was just awesome.”

Another Minnesota wrestling icon, Verne Gagne, acted as referee for the bout. Jay said that Ali knew that if the two men got into the ropes, they would have to break up and move to the center where Ali could really box Jay instead of wrestle.

“Verne Gagne was the referee and he broke it up [on the ropes], and I said, ‘Let me take him down!’ ” Jay said. “But [Ali] was smart. He knew what was going on. He would run into the ropes and we would have to break. He wasn’t a dummy. But I did it and I’ll never regret it.”

Jay, 79, said he is working with his son in the landscaping business. “Still busting sod,” he said.

Jottings

• Maybe Ricky Rubio will get his wish and be traded if the Wolves don’t make the playoffs next season, because good sources claim he really was on the trade market last season, if the Wolves could have made a deal for a great shooting guard. Now if the right three-point shooting guard becomes available as a free agent or in the draft, Rubio may get his wish before the playoffs are even near.

• If the Twins were getting revenue sharing the past two years when they drew attendance of 2.5 million in 2014 and 2.2 million in 2015, you can count on them getting a good check from the commissioner’s office on the basis of the 2016 attendance, which is sure to be the lowest since they moved into Target Field.

• For the present, operators of U.S. Bank Stadium have cut off all tours while the Mortenson Construction crew does all of the cleaning in the new stadium.

• The Vikings threw a birthday party for coach Mike Zimmer, who turned 61 last week. It was amazing the number of out-of-town friends who flew in to honor one of most popular Vikings coaches in history.

• Gophers men’s hockey assistant coach Grant Potulny has been named to the coaching staff for the 2017 U.S. National Junior Team, which will play at the World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto this winter.

• Sam Panayotovich, who works for Chicago’s WGN Radio, says the White Sox are targeting former Twins first baseman Justin Morneau as a free agent.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com