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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After a scrimmage on Saturday and a full-tackling practice on Tuesday, the Gophers backed off to keep players' strength up on Thursday. Practice ended roughly 20-30 minutes earlier than usual, there was plenty of work on kickoffs and punting, and there was no tackling. Kill described the practice as a "dud."
The biggest news of the day was probably the return to (limited) action by a trio of Gophers who had worn orange (injured) jerseys up until now. Running back Donnell Kirkwood, offensive lineman Foster Bush and defensive back Steven Montgomery all wore regular practice jerseys and took part in an assortment of drills. (There's more about that in my story in Friday's paper.) And offensive lineman Caleb Bak wore a protective boot on his foot, though his injury is not considered serious.
There were a handful of nice plays, but without tackling, it's hard to learn too much. Still, Max Shortell rocketed a nice 20-yard completion to receiver Cameron Wilson at one point. And freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner made an impressive play with his hustle. When Leidner tried to force a throw across the middle, linebacker Aaron Hill intercepted it and ran to his right to return it. But Hill was corralled and fumbled the ball before the play was whistled dead. And among the players diving onto the ground trying to recover the loose ball was Leidner, who had sprinted 20 yards toward Hill after the pick.
MarQueis Gray had a handful of effective throws, but he was especially impressive keeping the ball today, catching the defense on a misdirection more than once.
Coach Jerry Kill is clearly trying to keep his players from feeling too comfortable with their proficiency level, and I saw him kick three different players out of the huddle if he was displeased. "Hey! Block him! Or don't play!" Kill shouted at a backup tight end after one running play was busted. "Out! You don't know what you're doing!" he hollered at a running back who failed to pick up the pass rush.
The Gophers move to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday (10:15 a.m., open to the public) for a scrimmage that Kill said would serve as a kind of where-are-we test of his team. They'll also test-run some kickoff coverages and returns, too, to figure out how to adapt to the new college rules that discourage kick returns.
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