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.
CHICAGO -- He looked more like a banker in his pinstriped suit, but MarQueis Gray is all athlete, his coach said Thursday at the Big Ten media session. "The guy that is, no question, without a doubt, the most gifted athlete on our squad is MarQueis," Jerry Kill said.
And he's getting more athletic all the time. Gray said his packed schedule of summer workouts -- three days a week with strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, three days running informal captain's practices of his own -- has produced results. He now weighs (gulp) 245 pounds.
That's bigger than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, pretty much any NFL quarterback these days. He towered over Michigan's Denard Robinson, though admittedly Robinson may be the fastest player in the league. Still, it's not hard to picture Big Ten linebackers having trouble bringing down the Gophers' new quarterback.
"I feel great. Hard work, all summer," Gray said. "Coach Klein, he keeps you busy."
So does the public relations department, since Gray is the new face of the program. Gray is enjoying that part, too. "Representing our team at media days, I'm loving it, I'm loving Coach for choosing me," said Gray, who was joined in Chicago by running back Duane Bennett and linebacker Mike Rallis. "They ask me about Coach Kill, what's he like, how do I feel about everybody writing us off [as] last in the Big Ten. It's fun."
He said Klein devised special shoulder-strengthening calisthenics for him to prepare for his new job, and he makes more than 200 throws, on all kinds of routes and distances, at every workout. "It gets tired a little bit," he said of his throwing shoulder. "But it's not sore."
"He throws the ball very well," Kill said, "much better than what people think."
Kill, at his first league media session as Minnesota's coach, reiterated that Gray will remain at quarterback, and won't be used at all at receiver, where he has spent the past two seasons. "We feel good about our No. 1 quarterback," he said. But Gray's backup is very much in question.
"We don't have as much depth right now, so we need to find somebody that's going to push MarQueis and find out who that No. 2 person is," he said.
A few more notes from Day 1 in Chicago:
-- Duane Bennett said he doesn't necessarily expect more carries now that DeLeon Eskridge has transferred to San Jose State. Matter of fact, he's not sure what his role will be at all. "They're going to use me as they see fit, and I'm willing to accept the role, whether it's catching the ball out of the backfield, or running the ball," the senior-to-be said. "If they told me 'All you're going to do this year is block,' I'll block. I'm fine with that."
Bennett has been spending the summer working an internship at PPI Sports, doing spreadsheet work and tracking orders.
-- It was unusual that as Kill spoke about the challenges of coaching the Gophers, his two immediate predecessors were both present to hear him. Glen Mason is here in his role as a Big Ten Network analyst, while Tim Brewster attended as part of his job as a Fox sideline reporter.
Kill was one of five coaches making their first appearance as a Big Ten coach, and it was funny to contrast his approach to, say, Indiana's Kevin Wilson. The new Hoosiers coach, hired away from Oklahoma, said he wasn't worried about the past, so he hasn't watched a single play from last season on tape. Kill? "I've gone back through the history of the University of Minnesota, all the way back to the '60s."
-- Bo Pelini couldn't praise Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez enough. In one sentence, the Nebraska coach said Martinez has had "a great off-season," a "tremendous spring" and a "phenomenal summer."
-- BTN Network president Mark Silverman reiterated that 11 a.m. kickoffs are largely a thing of the past, thanks to the newly won right to televise games on BTN during the 2:30 CT window previously reserved exclusively for ABC and ESPN. He also hopes to develop Saturday night games into a big event. And the BTN announced its iPad/iPhone app, BTN2GO is now available, with the ability to stream games live.
-- Give director of officiating Bill Carollo credit for predicting a controversy that's sure to flare up this season, once referees begin enforcing the new unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Beginning this season, any moves deemed taunting, or excessive celebration, or "calling attention to ones self," that occur while the ball is live will be penalized like any other live-ball infractions.
Ever seen a tailback dive into the end zone, even though nobody is around to tackle him, just as a lark? Rather than penalize the team 15 yards on the PAT or kickoff, an official can throw a flag on the 1-yard line, take away the touchdown, and put the ball on the 16. Think that might affect the outcome of a game?
Carollo does, and he was remarkably open about it.
"I'm confident we're going to have some controversy this season," he said. "Will be consistent across the board in that area? Probably not."
That's the problem with the new rule -- different officials have different standards, and there's no real way to draw a definitive line on something so subjective. As Carollo said, the rule can't anticipate every celebration that players might come up with, and referees react to things differently.
He told his officials to "use some common sense, not over-officiate it." But "I do think it will be controversial the first time we take away a scoring play."
So why enforce something so subjective?
"We want that out of the game," he said.
-- It's always fun to listen to Joe Paterno, and the 84-year-old Penn State coach didn't disappoint on Thursday, starting when he told reporters "I'll take questions -- but speak up, will you, guys?"
Paterno said he feels much better than he has in the past two years, walking more, watching what he eats as he enters his 46th season. He didn't want to talk about roster decisions, saying he doesn't like to "get into personalities right now." When asked how his program had avoided major NCAA violations in an era when they've seemingly become common, he said, "Maybe we're lucky."
And when asked about his contract, he seemed surprised. "Is this the last year of my contract?" he asked to laughter. "I don't even know if I've got a contract."
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