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.
Troy Stoudermire was sitting on the pass route, "baiting the play," as he said, because he was certain the ball was headed toward his man. Sure enough, the pass looped toward the right sideline, and the Gophers' senior cornerback got a running start. "I was waiting on it," he said.
Stoudermire arrived a half-second after the ball, not that his target had any hope of holding on to it. The collision reverberated around the field -- "I like that sound," Stoudermire said with a smile -- and grabbed the attention even of players involved in other drills 50 yards away.
That hit would have been replayed by ESPN had it occurred during a game, but it happened Tuesday, in the final week of spring football practice. The victim wasn't a Big Ten opponent, but teammate Cameron Wilson, a redshirt freshman pressed into duty by the Gophers' shortage of receivers.
No mercy for a teammate? Not in this sport.
"When we hear Coach say 'live,' it's another opponent, and you've got to take advantage of it," Stoudermire said. "It felt pretty good."
The big crunch was one of the highlights of practice No. 13, and it was representative, too, of a defense-dominated day. The Gophers have stopped adding new elements, preferring to wait until the fall to introduce specialized packages like overload blitzes and nickel coverages, so "they're feeling more comfortable out there," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "They're setting in a little bit, getting some confidence."
The difference is noticeable. For the first time all spring, the offense didn't have single big play on Tuesday, "and that's something we've been emphasizing," Claeys said. "They've been getting smaller and smaller, anyway, so this is good progress. We're seeing a lot fewer busted plays and broken coverages. We're just playing better."
During a 15-minute stretch of scrimmaging, the offense couldn't even get a first down, turned away on five or six straight series. To be fair, the offense is missing some of its best players -- Da'Jon McKnight and Eric Lair won't practice again at all this spring, actually, and right tackle Jimmy Gjere remains sidelined, too -- but the Gophers couldn't score a touchdown until they were handed the ball on the 3, during the red-zone drill. Even then, it took a couple of series to get in, finally scoring on a Duane Bennett 2-yard plunge.
Coach Jerry Kill was obviously growing frustrated with a series of mistakes by the offense, at one point screaming at an offensive lineman who jumped before the snap, "You're worth one of those every day!" At the end of practice, Kill made his players run the width of the field several times, ordering them to flop on their stomach and jump to their feet every time he blew his whistle. He also added to the drill every time a player "let his teammates down" by doing it half-hearted. Ultimately, the offense had to run more than twice as many laps as the defense, as penance for all the dumb penalties.
"We're not trying to be mean to them. We're not trying to condition them. I told them, 'Hey guys, this isn't about punishing anybody,' " Kill said. "But is it OK to jump offsides? No. It takes one guy to make a mental error that costs you a game."
A few other observations from practice:
-- The Gophers moved back to their indoor facility to avoid the cold and wind in TCF Bank Stadium, but they plan to return to the stadium for Thursday's practice and Saturday's spring game. The outdoor practice field is torn up as workers removed the old turf and prepare to lay the new one, a process that will take 6-8 weeks.
-- Gary Tinsley has been used at outside linebacker several times this spring, but he was used exclusively in the middle on Tuesday, rotating with Brendan Beal, and Claeys said he's going to stay there at least until the fall. "That's such an important position, we've got to make sure we've got two solid guys there, because that's the guy who sets everything up in front," Claeys said.
Tinsley was the Gophers' leading tackler last year, but he missed two weeks with a hamstring injury at the start of spring ball. He's now the No. 2 at his position, behind Beal, "because Gary has to get caught up" with what he missed, Claeys said. The distinction doesn't mean much, the coordinator said, because "Both guys will play all they can handle. We're going to need as many guys as we can get."
-- Tom Parish fumbled another snap, and was generally harassed by the defense all day. Linemen knocked down at least four passes -- they've clearly been coached to be more active when the quarterback gets ready to throw, and 6-5 Kendall Gregory-McGee and 6-6 Ra'Shede Hageman loom pretty large when they jump -- and one by Gregory-McGee bounced off Parish's helmet.
-- The only other touchdown I saw was by Logan Hutton, who caught a nice 8-yard pass from Parish, who was rolling out right during the red-zone drill. Say this for Parish: He's not afraid. He tried a QB keeper during that scrimmage, too, put his head down and tried to dive across the goal line, where he was cracked pretty hard by a defensive lineman.
-- Tough day for Donnell Kirkwood. Not only did the freshman running back lose a fumble, but he tried ad-libbing during the goal-line drill, skipping the inside lane his line opened for him to try to bounce outside, unsuccessfully. Kill was so irate, Kirkwood spent the next few minutes standing next to the coach, doing "up-downs."
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