Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He previously covered the Minnesota Vikings for four years, starting in 2008. In addition, he covered college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.

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Hard-throwing Graham pushing to make Twins roster

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: March 24, 2015 - 4:56 PM

FORT MYERS, FLA. – J.R. Graham, a Rule 5 draft pick, doesn’t look like an intimidating presence on the mound. He’s listed generously at 6-0, 210 pounds, though he’s probably more like 5-11.

He’s not big in stature but he has a big arm, and the hard-throwing reliever helped his cause to make the Twins roster by pitching out of an inherited bases loaded jam in the seventh inning Tuesday against Toronto.

Graham came in after Brian Duensing took a line drive off the leg. The bases were loaded with no outs in a tie game, 1-1.

“I just wanted to get out with as little damage as possible,” Graham said.

He cleaned up the mess with no damage after getting a strikeout and a double play to end the inning.

“I loved that,” manager Paul Molitor said. “That kind of got my blood going the right direction.”

Graham allowed three hits and one earned run the next inning. J.D. Williams butchered a play in right field that made the inning worse than it should have been.

“I don’t think I pitched the cleanest that inning,” Graham said. “But I was feeling good. I was going right after people. I wasn’t going to give in. I feel good about everything.”

Graham’s performance this spring has put him in the mix for one of the bullpen jobs. As a Rule 5 pick, the Twins either must keep the 25-year-old Graham on the roster the entire season or offer him back to the Atlanta Braves, his original team.

“If we think a guy has a ceiling, we’ll take care of it, but first he has to make the club,” general manager Terry Ryan said. “It’s tough to carry a Rule 5 guy that doesn’t contribute. We’re hoping that J.R. Graham, if he does pitch well enough this spring, he could give us thoughts of carrying him.”

Graham doesn’t get short-changed on his fastball. His fastball topped out at 96 Tuesday. He hit 100 once as a junior in college and again as a minor leaguer.

“It’s a cool number,” he said. “Not too many people have done it. More people are doing it now. I can say that I’m in that class.”

Graham said he’s always thrown hard, starting in Little League, even though he wasn’t a big kid. Power pitchers, he noted, come “in all shapes and sizes.”

His secret to throwing hard?

“People think I’m crazy when I say this, but the way I learned to throw harder was actually by throwing harder,” he said. “If you want to throw hard, throw hard.”

Um, OK. Seems logical enough.

“When I’m playing catch, I’m not just going to just lob it out there,” he said. “I’m letting it loose every throw. It builds up your arm strength.”

Graham also gained velocity over the years through strength training and running sprints. He said he does 10-yard and 20-yard sprints to increase his explosiveness.

Graham pointed to a large red spot on the outside of his big toe. That’s his sure sign that he’s pushing hard on his delivery and getting maximum velocity on his fastball.

“It’s everything,” he said. “It’s arm strength, it’s leg strength, it’s core strength, it’s total body.”

He also knows that part of throwing that hard comes down to natural talent, too.

“I have been blessed with some good genetics,” he said.

Graham has opened some eyes in camp and looks like he has a decent chance to make the team if he finishes strong.

“I don’t want to go back,” he said. “I want to stay on the team, I want to make the team. I looked at this as my opportunity. I’m planning on staying.”

Peterson situation exhausting but Vikings shouldn't budge

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: March 24, 2015 - 10:39 AM

I have a serious case of Peterson fatigue.

Anyone else?

The rift between the Vikings and Adrian Peterson and his camp continued to grow wider Monday when agent Ben Dogra told reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that he doesn’t feel it’s in Peterson's best interest to play in Minnesota.

"Why would it be?" he asked.

Peterson’s camp continues to offer up tough rhetoric with the hope that he can force his way out of Minnesota. If I’m the Vikings, I sit and do nothing.

It’s clear that Peterson and his camp are floating his unhappiness at every opportunity because they want to create that fatigue. They want the Vikings to get to a point where they see no alternative but to trade him as soon as possible.

They’re trying to back the Vikings into a corner to a point where the organization throws its hands up and says, “This situation is hopeless. Let’s just move on.”

The Vikings shouldn’t budge UNLESS a team comes in and blows them away with a trade offer. That apparently hasn’t happened yet so why rush into a bad deal?

The Vikings hold all the leverage in this situation. Peterson is under contract for the next few seasons. He’s scheduled to make nearly $13 million this season.

Make him honor his contract for one more season.

Peterson might return disgruntled but I don’t think he would give a half-hearted effort on the football field. That’s not his nature.

He cares too much about his legacy in the game and he’s too competitive to just go through the motions because he’s mad at the Vikings.

He might pout in the locker room or boycott the media, but I’m guessing he has too much respect for Mike Zimmer and his teammates to give less than his best on game day.

Nobody wants an unhappy star player, but the Vikings have to do what’s best for their organization, too. They shouldn’t make a dumb, hasty trade just because Peterson’s camp is trying to orchestrate his exit.

Both sides look like their digging in their heels. This situation could become even uglier and more bizarre than it already is, but unless another team brings an attractive trade offer too good to refuse, the Vikings should give Peterson two options: Play this season or sit.

Kill reflects on bowl decisions, Leidner, future expectations

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: January 5, 2015 - 11:52 AM

Jerry Kill had some free time Saturday morning as he recharged in Florida after the Citrus Bowl so he gave me about 30 minutes for a phone conversation.

We talked about a number of topics. I was critical of Kill’s conservative approach in the final minute before halftime in a 33-17 loss to Missouri so our conversation started with his decision-making in that situation.

Kill wasn’t angry or testy, but he elaborated on why he elected to run out the clock rather than attempt to try and get points with his team trailing 10-7.

“I’ve been doing it for 31 years and I’ve been on two sides of that,” he said. “We’ve done something like that [try and score] and the ball went the other way and it cost us the game. On the other side of it, we’ve done it and been successful. …

“In my opinion, there are times to roll the dice. We had control. We had the ball 19 minutes to their 11 [in time of possession]. They were not dominating us. I felt like we could get right back out and score and be smart.”

Kill said he wasn’t worried about Mitch Leidner throwing as interception as much as he was Leidner getting sacked and possibly fumbling the ball deep in their territory. Leidner lost one fumble on a sack in the first quarter. He lost another fumble in the second half.

Kill said he had a lot of respect for Missouri’s defensive ends, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. In studying the Tigers on film and talking to coaches who have faced them or scouted them, the coaching staff was concerned about taking shots down the field because it would force Leidner to hang onto the ball.

“We did some things protection-wise to help us,” Kill said. “You don’t want to hold onto the ball against those guys. Well, in the situation that we were in, you’re going to have to hold onto the ball because they knew you were going to throw it. …

“When you’re in that two-minute deal, you’ve got to go down the field even with the timeouts we had. It was more about them and us being in control the game. Even though we were down, I felt as a head coach, I felt good. I felt we controlled the game in the first half. …

“If we wouldn’t have turned it over on a sack [earlier] … in a coach’s mind, that plays into it because [what] if that happens again. If we do that and the ball gets knocked out, people are going to go, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s my opinion. It doesn’t have to be yours.”

I still would have preferred Kill take a more aggressive approach in that situation, but I appreciated hearing his explanation and philosophy in more detail.

Kill and his wife Rebecca stayed in Florida for a few days to re-energize before jumping back into the recruiting cycle.

I asked Kill about his expectation for Leidner next season:

Kill: “He’s just like me. I’ve got to take the one step better as a coach and he’s got to continue to grow and take the next step. He’s got to do what [Michigan State’s] Connor Cook did.”

I asked Kill if there’s a chance that redshirt freshman Jacques Perra could challenge Leidner for the job next season.

Kill: “You know what, come back and ask me – a lot of people forget about [Chris] Streveler too – but come back and ask me that question before we start spring. I need to see the offseason. But it will be hard because I think Mitch is going to take that next stride.

“I understand, it’s like people talk about me making decisions. I get that. But I would just tell you that I’ll know a lot more about everything in the spring. But I anticipate that Mitch -- certainly in the bowl game on a big stage, I thought he did a good job. I know what he can do. He’s just got to continue to work.”

I asked Kill if he has an idea of what running back Jeff Jones might bring to the offense. Jones sat out this season to focus on his grade.

Kill: “I know there’s not many athletes that are like that. He is a very, very gifted athlete. We’ll just have a lot more skill players and he’s one of them.

“Isaiah Gentry is 6-4, 205 and has got unbelievable speed. The two guys that people forgot about is Desmond Gant. He is a big, strong, fast kid. Then, Melvin Holland. All three of those kids have got talent out the tail end.

“All of those guys can really, really run. We have not had that since I’ve been here on the offensive side of the ball.”

Finally, I asked Kill about how expectations will be different for his team next season. The Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten West Division by writers before this season. They will be expected to contend for the division title in preseason opinions.

Kill: “That’s a good thing. If there’s no expectations, that means you’re probably going to get fired. You’re not moving the program forward. I actually think that’s good for our program and it will be good going into the offseason. It’s going to be different. But Minnesota has waited a long time for it to be different.”

Gophers only have themselves to blame

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: January 1, 2015 - 3:10 PM

ORLANDO -- The Gophers played their first New Year's Day bowl game in 53 years and they didn't handle the stage very well at all.

The Gophers made numerous self-inflicted mistakes and kept tripping over themselves in a 33-17 loss to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl.

The Gophers showed improvement this season, but they should fume over this missed opportunity.

They lost three fumbles, including two by quarterback Mitch Leidner. They muffed a punt that gave Missouri great field position.

They had an unnecessary roughing the passer penalty that helped set up a Missouri touchdown.

They allowed MU to convert a faked punt and an onside kick to start the second half.

Jerry Kill played things too conservatively at the end of the first half after his offense got the ball at their 25 with 1:04 left and all three timeouts. Kill ran out the clock, even after his team moved the ball to their 41 with about 20 seconds left.

The Gophers didn't run another play. The Gophers were supposed to get the ball to start the second half but Missouri perfectly executed an onside kick.

It was just a sloppy, disappointing performance for the Gophers.

Gophers finally get attractive bowl game destination

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: December 7, 2014 - 3:58 PM

The proliferation of bowl games makes it feel like every team in college football gets a chance to play in one. That's not the case, of course, but there are so many bowl games these days that it doesn't always feel like a reward for a good season.

The Gophers are being rewarded for a good season.

The Gophers will finally play in a New Year's Day game, their first since 1962. They reportedly will play Missouri in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 1.

This represents another positive step for Jerry Kill and his program.

The Gophers have earned bowl trips in the past decade, but they've always been lower-tier bowl games. Nothing that really excites the fan base or inspires large number of fans to travel.

This is an attractive bowl game, a good opportunity for a program that's building something. A New Year's Day game in Florida against a team that played in the SEC Championship game.

This game will give Kill's program more national exposure and provides more evidence that the Gophers are trending in the right direction.


 

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