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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Spring football games are all about marketing. Football coaches don't care much about that stuff.
That was evident Saturday at Jerry Kill's first spring games as Minnesota's head coach, an event that bore little resemblance to a game, or even to the previous 14 practices. The Gophers ran roughly 75 plays -- or more like, three different plays 25 times apiece.
Coaches are paranoid about giving away information, so with the Big Ten Network's cameras recording everything for a national audience (Sunday at 6 p.m., by the way), the Gophers went with "our vanilla offense," as coordinator Matt Limegrover described it. Kill said he even decided against punting because "I didn't want to show what we're doing with our punt team."
It seemed like the 2,500 or so fans in attendance had a good time, but I imagine a few were disappointed at how unremarkable, even low-key, the 80-minute scrimmage was. It didn't help, of course, that a dozen different Gophers, including seemingly every receiver on the roster, were banged up with minor injuries. Asked on Thursday what his goals for the game were, Kill spit out "don't get hurt," before the question was even finished.
So the defense looked pretty good, allowing only one touchdown (a three-yard rush by Donnell Kirkwood) and two field goals all day. And MarQueis Gray connected on several screens and short dumps, but hardly anything downfield. (On the other hand, he didn't throw an interception, either.) And Marcus Jones was the primary target, the tight ends got little work, and the running game went in fits and starts.
But except for the technique and play-knowledge judgements that the coaches will extract, all of it seemed a little meaningless -- even moreso than usual, I believe -- because it bore so little relation to what the Gophers will look like in the fall.
Even Kill was toned down, deliberately he said in order to judge how the players will react during a game. "I tried to back off," he said, "but I couldn't do it right there at the end," when he called the offense together for a quick lecture on effort and intensity.
Kirkwood, Bennett and Eskridge each had a run of five yards or more, and Kirkwood popped one for 27, a romp that delighted him because "I've been working on getting my footsteps right, and I did there." But I guarantee Kill will remember Kirkwood's day far more for letting the ball slip out of his arms for a fumble after a short gain on a screen pass.
That was the day's only turnover, a good sign for the offense. So was Moses Alipate's heads-up play, impressive considering he only started getting regular practice time last week when Tom Parish was injured. "He did a good job leading the team, getting them in and out of the huddle," Kill said. "He did some things today that we haven't seen in practice to this point, so I was excited for him."
You can certainly see how tempting (and frustrating) the sophomore is -- he's got an impressive passing arm, but his footwork and agility aren't up to that standard, thanks to his weight. Limegrover said he's lost a dozen pounds or more, but "the ball's in his court" if he wants to show he's serious about competing for the job.
I guess the subdued day was summed up by this: The most memorable play was by the kicker. Chris Hawthorne, the transfer from N.C. State, easily nailed a 50-yard field goal, which got the Gopher fans, clearly starved for reliable kicking, fired up for a few seconds.
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