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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I don't think the Gophers' offense is meant to result in lots of leaping, twisting catches, but what the heck -- it's nice to know they can do it if they have to.
That was the feeling I got at Gophers' practice on Sunday, where the ball seemed to be flying out of MarQueis Gray's hand. The good news: his receivers turned a handful of apparent overthrows into spectacular completions, and Gray danced around a couple of times in celebration with them.
Maybe most impressive was a catch in the end zone by tight end Sahr Ngekia, a tight end from Richfield. Ngekia is 6-4 to begin with, so when he rose to bring down a 30-yard catch with a linebacker trying to break up the play, it got a big reaction from the crowd.
Later, Gray put another long pass on the fingertips of junior receiver Derrick Engel, who somehow came down with the ball.
Backup quarterback Max Shortell seemed to like working with the Gophers' freshmen receivers. Andre McDonald made a diving catch on the sidelines, but kept his feet inbounds, on a low throw from Shortell. And Jamel Harbison caught a nice pass in stride in the end zone a little later.
It's all just scheme work at the moment, since the Gophers aren't wearing pads yet. But they are getting a feel for who might contribute this year.
One name I hadn't expected to hear so soon: defensive back Eric Murray. The true freshman from Milwaukee has already caught his coach's attention with his quickness to the ball.
"Eric has done awfully well, very impressive," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. "He's had a good couple of days. He has the ability to play at this level, so it creates good competition and gives us more depth."
The special-teams work on Sunday was limited to trying out 10 different potential kickoff returners, and then an extended period of learning to block punts. The punters seem less than enthused about that drill, getting punt after punt knocked down by a rusher.
The Gophers resume their open practices on Monday, again at 10:30 a.m. at the Gibson-Nagurski practice field.
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