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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Kill pushes for more physical mindset

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: April 24, 2013 - 2:31 PM
The Gophers football team hosts its spring game on Saturday and in several conversations I’ve had with coach Jerry Kill, it’s clear the head coach is pleased with the physical tone in practices this spring.
 
Granted, spring practice is completely different than regular season, but Kill believes his team is showing signs of becoming more physical on both sides of the ball. He thinks it’s a carryover from the Meineke Car Care Bowl, a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
 
“That’s who we want to be,” Kill said.
 
To be clear, Kill was disappointed in the loss and the mental mistakes late in the game that opened the door for Texas Tech to rally. But he was encouraged by how physical his team played, particularly in the running game.
 
“When we walked off the field, I turned to [an assistant] coach and said, ‘This is who we want to be,’” Kill said. “I said this is the first time since I’ve been at the University of Minnesota that I feel like we were physical.”
 
The Gophers displayed a power running game behind a healthy offensive line and tag-team duo of Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams. Those two running backs combined for 137 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 31 carries. In all, the Gophers rushed for 222 yards on 54 carries.
 
The Gophers dominated the line of scrimmage against a Texas Tech team that finished 74th nationally in rushing defense and played in a pass-happy conference.
 
“I think the big thing was, I felt like for the first time we had an identity and aggressive tone to us,” Kill said.
 
Kill probably wasn’t fond of some of the extra-curricular stuff that happened after plays. But his players also didn’t back down when Texas Tech became chippy and undisciplined. That’s a good sign.
 
One of my biggest frustrations with the Gophers in recent years is that they didn’t always fight back in tough times. They just let things snowball on them. But they showed some fight in that bowl game -- literally a few times -- which left Kill encouraged.
 
“We said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to take it anymore,’” Kill said. “That excites me.”
 
The coaching staff has shown players film of that game multiple times this spring to reinforce the physical style they covet. Now, they must prove that they can play that way consistently.
 
“You have to do it in the Big Ten,” Kill said. “For us to take steps forward, we have to play like that. As we teach kids, we have to go back to that game a lot and say, ‘Hey, I know we can do it.’”
 
Kill desperately wants an offense built around a power running game, and the coaching staff is excited about the possibilities of a backfield rotation of Kirkwood, Williams and incoming freshman Berkley Edwards as a change-of-pace threat.
 
That would reduce the number of carries for quarterback Philip Nelson, thus eliminating some of the pounding he takes. In terms of Nelson’s target number for carries, Kill said he’d like to “pick your spots,” rather that use Nelson as a featured ball carrier.
 
“We’ve been blessed -- and University of Minnesota has been blessed -- but you look through my whole record of coaching, clear back to DII, we’ve had great running backs,” he said. “We had them at Northern [Illinois], we had them at Southern. We’ve got to get back to having them. I think the bowl game gave some of those guys confidence.”
 
 
 

Nessler excited for homecoming

Posted by: Chip Scoggins under Vikings off the field Updated: October 24, 2012 - 1:41 PM
The Vikings-Buccaneers game Thursday night serves as a homecoming for NFL Network’s Brad Nessler, a St. Charles native, Minnesota State-Mankato graduate and former Vikings radio play-by-play analyst.
 
For my money, Nessler is the best play-by-play announcer in any sport on TV these days. Whether calling the NFL or college football and college basketball for ESPN, he always delivers a professional, knowledgeable broadcast.
 
I caught up with Nessler at the Atlanta airport before his flight to the Twin Cities. He talked about his memories as the Vikings play-by-play analyst on WCCO Radio from 1988-89.
 
“I remember playoff disappointment in San Francisco,” he said. “I remember Herschel [Walker] having about 150 yards in his first game and flying out of his shoe on his first carry.”
 
Nessler recently ran into former Vikings defensive lineman Keith Millard, who currently serves as a defensive assistant with the Tennessee Titans. The two shared stories and laughs about those training camp days in Mankato in the late 1980s.
 
“I always enjoyed myself, maybe too much,” Nessler said, laughing. “I know there were times when it was like two minutes till 11 and I said, ‘Boys, aren’t you supposed to be back pretty soon or coach is going to be mad?’ They said, ‘It only takes a minute and a half to get to Gage [Hall dorm]. I said, ‘We’re a mile away. How are you going to do that?’ I know they were a little late a couple of times and I was probably part of the reason.”
 
Nessler still remembers fondly WCCO’s press conference announcing the broadcast team of Stu Voigt and himself.
 
“It was pretty special because I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad that proud,” he said. “I just remember my mom and dad being so thrilled that day. It was pretty cool so the whole beginning was just neat.”
 
Nessler has called a few Vikings games over the years after he left to join CBS. 
 
“I remember the last one I did there was with Hank Stram,” he said. “He had this gigantic monitor in the booth. He had a spotter’s sheet that was about the size of a dining room table. I walked in and I said, ‘Hank, where am I supposed to stand?’”
 
Nessler is excited to return to his home state and spend some time with family members, including his brother. They had a big family dinner planned Wednesday night. His ESPN college football duties only allow for a brief visit though.
 
“There’s a 6:30 a.m. flight from Minneapolis to Birmingham with my name on it Friday morning,” he said. “I have to get to Tuscaloosa for a meeting with Coach [Nick] Saban and those guys.” He’s calling Mississippi State at Alabama.
 
Nessler maintains a hectic schedule during football season, especially now that NFL Network has a full slate of Thursday night games. He also calls a college football game every Saturday night.
 
“The time management thing is huge,” he said. “I don’t think I realized how big of a challenge it is. I did it last year but we had eight games instead of a full schedule. I keep telling people, it’s like the Beatles song “Eight days a week.” If I had an eighth day in the week I would be perfect. I can’t find that extra day.”
 
 
 
 

Two different memories of Gophers-Badgers rivalry

Posted by: Chip Scoggins under Gophers sports Updated: October 19, 2012 - 7:04 PM
MADISON -- I've arrived in Madison for Saturday’s Gophers-Badgers game. Rivalry games are one of my favorite things about college football. I love the history of long-standing rivalries and the passion and animosity between fan bases.
 
I caught up with two former Gophers players -- kicker Rhys Lloyd and punter Justin Kucek -- who experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows in this series.
 
In 2003, Lloyd made a game-winning field goal as time expired to give the Gophers a 37-34 victory. Two years later, Kucek had his punt blocked and recovered by Wisconsin in the end zone with 30 seconds remaining as the Gophers blew a late lead in a 38-34 loss.
 
I asked both players how often they reflect on their one defining play in this rivalry.
 
“It’s not something I sit around and think about it a lot,” Lloyd said. “I always get phone calls or texts around the time of the game each year because they show me racing across the field.”
 
Lloyd recalled the scene before his kick as Wisconsin called a timeout to make him think about it.
 
“One of their players, I can’t even remember who, was talking some smack to me,” Lloyd said. “I was giving him the hand signal like keep talking because I kind of liked to talk some trash too. One of my teammates pulled me away and I went to the sideline.”
 
As far as the kick, Lloyd said he didn’t really feel much pressure. The score was tied so even if he missed, the Gophers still had overtime. And the kick set up nicely for him -- 35-yarder, left hash.
 
“It wasn’t a difficult kick in that sense,” he said.
 
Lloyd’s reaction became a highlight in itself. He led the Gophers mad dash across the field to grab Paul Bunyan’s Axe. He jumped over the Badgers bench in the process.
 
“I just started running around doing a little soccer celebration and then I see our entire bench running across the field,” he said. “I figured I would run with them instead of getting flattened by them.”
 
Lloyd said Gophers fans love to talk about that kick whenever he runs into them and joked that more than a few have bought him a drink because of it.
 
“Let’s just say that kick has been very good for me,” he said, laughing.
 
Kucek experienced the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. With the Gophers clinging to a 34-31 lead with 38 seconds left in 2005, he lined up for a punt, standing near his own 5. The snap was on target, but Kucek dropped it.
 
He picked up the ball and tried to punt it while running to his right. But Wisconsin’s Jonathan Casillas blocked it, and Ben Strickland recovered it in the end zone to finish off a wild comeback.
 
“I do think about it from time to time,” Kucek said. “But when I think about it, I’m not happy that it happened, but I was fortunate to have something like that happen in my life where I can apply it to what I do today.”
 
Today, Kucek lives in Florida and enjoys a successful business career as Wal-Mart Director of Operations for Bridgford Foods.
 
I always admired Kucek for how he handled that situation as a redshirt freshman. He handled it with class and eventually became an all-Big Ten performer a few years later.
 
It was tough for him immediately afterward though. He said he received between 500-700 nasty messages and emails. His parents also received phone calls at their home.
 
Kucek came into the postgame interview with tears in his eyes that day but he answered every question.
 
“It didn’t feel good going in there, but I knew if I went in and owned up to what happened that it would help me in the long run,” he said.
 
Kucek said that experience helped him grow as a person and learn how to deal with adversity.
 
“You realize that life is not always going to be perfect for you,” he said. “If it is, God bless you. There’s always tribulations that go on in your life. You have to learn from it and grow from it. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t dropped that punt. In football and also my career. It helped me look at things from a different angle, just be positive in everything.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Jared Allen talks sacks

Posted by: Chip Scoggins under Vikings players Updated: October 4, 2012 - 5:50 PM
Recently I had a chance to sit down, watch film and talk to Jared Allen about the art of rushing the quarterback. My column and video are online. Here is the full transcript from that interview:
 
Q: I’ve heard you mention how difficult it is to sack the quarterback. You played 1,000 snaps last season, about half of them pass plays and nearly set an NFL record with 22 sacks. Do those numbers illustrate that?
 
JA: I learned early in my career from [former Chiefs line coach] Bob Karmelowicz, his whole thing was, how do you handle your failures? Statistically, if you win one out of every 19 rushes, you end up with around 17.5 sacks for the year. So our whole thing was, how do you handle those failures, how do you use those times when you don’t get to the quarterback to set up the time you do get to the quarterback? Especially in today’s league where there’s a lot more short and intermediate passes. Not everyone is so run happy. There is a lot of dink and dunks so those numbers are skewed even more. It’s tough to get there.
 
Q: Every player wants to be known for being consistent. You’ve put up big sack numbers throughout your nine years in the league. Is that a source of pride, being able to do it over the long haul?
 
JA: That’s what separates good players from great players. I’ve been blessed to be healthy through my career. I haven’t had to deal with injuries, nothing major. This league is built on what have you done for me lately. No matter what you did the year before, you’ve got to come out and do it again or otherwise you’re really no value to anybody. At the end of my career, then you can look back and stand on what you did. But each year you’ve got to try and do your best and put it on tape.
 
Q: How have you evolved or changed since coming into the league?
 
JA: I’m a lot more intelligent about what I do. Work smarter, not harder. I came into the league at 265 [pounds]. When I got to Kansas City I couldn’t be any lighter than 275. I was in the AFC West. It was a run happy league. That’s what they did. So for us, you had to big and you had to stop the run, stop the run, stop the run. Now I play at about 255 so I’m 20 pounds lighter. It’s more of technique-oriented. And as you get older, the game slows down. And as you get more attention [from defenses], you really have to be able to take advantage of certain pre-snap keys so you can get a jump on your opponent. Otherwise, you’re going to sit in double teams all game.
 
Q: How do you prepare each week for the left tackle you’re going to face?
 
JA: There’s a rhythm to everything in a game. I like watching a game and seeing what the rhythm of the offensive line is, the rhythm of the quarterback. Then, as I go through it, you look at launch points of the quarterback so you kind of know, where is he going to escape. The process isn’t only beating the left tackle. You’ve got to get to the quarterback and get him on the ground. Some quarterbacks hit that back foot and they like to step up in the pocket. Other quarterbacks will escape out the back. So a lot of it is just trying to realize once I get around the edge, now is he predominantly high or is he predominantly low? How fast do I have to get to him?
The majority of offensive linemen are rhythmic or they have a style. Everybody has a style. You watch and see how they set, what they get beat with, how you can counter that. Come Sunday, it’s just who wants it more and hopefully you’ve watched enough film and replayed it over and over in your mind to where you already know what the outcome is going to be.
 
Q: You get doubled and chipped all the time. How do you avoid letting that lead to frustration and how do you deal with it?
 
JA: You just expect it. You look at formation tendencies and where a guy lines up. If a running back is in a chip position, I’m expecting to get it. You’ve got to use those situations to your advantage. If there’s two people on me, there’s somebody who has a one-on-one. Sometimes the chip will screw the offense up. You can actually use that against them, whether you spin off it or split it. You get guys like [Carolina’s] Jordan Gross who’s a good left tackle so you get some one-on-one opportunities. That’s when you really have to be on your Ps and Qs. When you get one-on-one opportunities, you’ve got to win more than you lose.
 
Q: You’ve forced 27 fumbles since 2005. Is that something you’re always looking for as you close in on the quarterback?
 
JA: Yeah, unfortunately, I’ve missed two [sacks] this year by going for the football. I missed two in the Colts game. I came scot-free around the edge and I thought [Andrew Luck] was going to throw the ball and you go for the strip and he pulls it down. It’s kind of the progression for how it works. Once you get to the quarterback, you’re trying to make a big play. A sack is such a momentum killer. A lot of it comes down to sheer want-to. You can have all the technique [but] you’ve got to be willing to outwork your opponent and find a way to get to the ball.
 
Q: How much is your success a product of technique versus effort and just hustling to get to the quarterback?
 
JA: Sometimes you’ll beat a guy clean and the ball will be out. Sometimes you have guys where you have two, three guys and you have to work through the trash. You’re coverage was good so you’ve got a chance to get on the ball. Some of the best rushes I’ve had haven’t led to sacks. There’s other times where you beat a guy clean. Everybody is talented in this league. There are certain things I can control. I can control how good of condition I’m in and I can control wanting it more than the other guy. If I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the quarterback, if I’m willing to do whatever it takes to beat my guy, I’m going to win more than I lose.
 
Q: You talk about setting up a guy a lot. Explain how you do that?
 
JA: In the San Francisco game, I had been outside, outside and beat him inside a couple times to set up a fake. On that last drive, I was just up top, up top, up top and he’s kind of washing me by. I went out into a wide nine and as he floated by, I came underneath. A lot of times a sack is a rhythm breaker. That’s why I talk about using your failures instead of your successes. If I’m getting a guy into a rhythm, I might have three, four or five rushes where I’m up the field. I’m obviously trying to win. But if I don’t get there, I know if I give this guy the same look, then counter off of it, you have a greater chance of winning. A lot of times sacks come off the rhythm breakers. That’s why you see guys like Dwight Freeney. They’re so fast around the edge and then all of a sudden they’ll hit a guy with a spin move and come scot-free because that offensive tackle, they’ve set him up in a rhythm and then changed it up on him.
 
Q: So you mix up rushes to keep from being predictable?
 
JA: I’m not a blazing fast guy. I’m not an overpowering guy. I’m a leverage-technique guy. That’s how I rush. I’m a firm believer that technique beats technique. If my technique is better than yours, I will win the majority of the time. You’ve just got to know your strengths. I can’t watch film of Dwight Freeney and how he beats guys because we rush completely different. So what might work for him won’t work for me. You take Justin Smith. That guy can bull-rush anybody. For me, it’s about leverage, technique and then just out-working my opponent.
 
Q: You played in a four-point stance when you first came here, right? Why did you change?
 
JA: Yeah, when I was in Kansas City I was in a four-point stance. I was talking to Bob Karmelowicz. He would come up on Tuesdays and we would work together because he was such a technician and he got me back in my three-point stance. He was like, you’re missing out on about 12 inches off your first step. He got me back into my three-point and got me comfortable [and helped me get] that extra foot that I was gaining off my initial step.
 
Q: In a game of inches, I assume that 12 inches is a big deal?
 
JA: Absolutely. I think that’s how you continually grow. What can I do technique-wise to get better? I’m not going to get any faster. I’m not going to get any stronger. So how can I slow this game down for me? It’s by watching film and by knowing my body and knowing my strengths and being able to use everything I do in a fluid motion so I don’t have any wasted steps.
 
Q: You get off the ball so fast it’s almost like you know the snap count sometimes. How do you learn that or is it just God-given?
 
JA: There’s some trade secrets that I can’t give away. The first person I ever watched film of when I got in the NFL was Derrick Thomas. There’s a rhythm to a game and there’s certain things you can watch and obviously there’s a play clock. You can kind of get an idea when a team wants to snap the ball. Offenses do stuff to tip their hand a little bit. You’ve just got to know what you’re looking for on film and there’s just that feel. You can tell if a guy is lazy in his stance, they’re not about to snap the ball versus when a guy is glaring right at you.
 
Q: Do you study other pass rushers to see if you can pick up any new ideas?
 
JA: Guys like Julius Peppers are a huge help. They play the same opponent and Julius and I have very similar techniques and rushes. I watch him. I think Trent Cole is a phenomenal pass rusher in Philly. He does some great stuff as far as the way he sets guys up. I’m a huge fan of pass rushers and other defensive ends. If a guy is doing something that I have in my arsenal to beat somebody, absolutely I’ll study him.
 
Q: We’ve seen you get three or four sacks in a game. Do you get in a rhythm against guys and feed off that?
 
JA: You get a sense of when you’ve got a guy [on the ropes]. That’s the greatest part about it. When you’ve got a guy, now he’s guessing where you’re going to go. Those are games you don’t want to end. I remember in 2009 that Green Bay game, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. Sometimes you get in that mode and everything you’re doing is working properly.
That’s why I always say you have to be so good on first and second down because if you’re in third and short or allow a team to run the ball on you, then your rhythm is broken because you don’t know what they’re going to do. Third-and-four or less, they’ve got the whole playbook open for you. When you get into the third-and-seven and have a lead, that allows you to rush, rush, rush. Then you can counter and do all sorts of stuff and they have to hold the ball [longer] because they have to go down the field. That’s when you get to heat them up.
 
Q: Is it especially rewarding when you chase a quarterback down on the opposite side of the field after they purposely rolled away from your side?
 
JA: You’ve got to have some luck too. The cards have to line up. It’s not an easy task. But there’s nothing better than when you chase a guy down and he decides to hold onto the ball and give you the sack. Heck, I’ll run him out of bounds and be the closest one there because that’s a sack as well. [laughing].
 
Q: Does that come back to the effort part?
 
JA: There are a lot of good people who can rush the quarterback. A lot of guys can rush the quarterback. It’s the willingness to explode. You hardly ever see an absolutely just clean beat on a guy. It’s the hand fighting inside that is probably where I excel the most. If you can trap a guy’s arm for half a second just to clear a hip, it might look trashy, but you know in your head that, ‘Oh, I just broke this guy down.’ Then you’ve got to close on him.

Q: Do you work on specific training on the offseason to improve those skills?
 
JA: I  do a lot of MMA and kick boxing, jiu-jitsu. A lot of that stuff helps, especially with your hips. And hand fighting is a huge, huge deal in pass rushing because so much of it is happening so close. If a guy gets in your chest, you’ve got to have a counter to it somehow.
 
Q: Any quarterback you haven’t sacked that you’d like to get?
 
JA: I want to get them all. I’ve got the majority of the big ones. Probably the best is Peyton Manning. It took me five years to get him. He gets rid of the ball so fast. I haven’t gotten Drew [Brees] since he was playing in San  Diego. It’s always fun to sack the top guys because that’s why they’re the top guys -- they get the ball out so fast. It’s fun. It’s a competition. I love playing against [Aaron] Rodgers. He’s a phenomenal quarterback. Sometimes those guys give you a little extra time because they might hold it a half a second longer just because they know they can fit the ball in tight places. Plus, it looks a little better on your resume at the end of the year, right? [laughing]
 
Q: Is there a particular body type or size of tackles that gives you particular trouble?
 
JA: It’s non-technical guys that are tough. Guys that just get in your way or kind of float back, those are some of the toughest guys to play against. Not only are they going to get a lot of help, but you’re setting them up with something they really don’t know to respond. Take a guy like [San Francisco’s] Joe Staley, he’s a good left tackle. He was in the Pro Bowl last year. He’s going to have technique. And there’s a technique to defeat that technique. But if a guy just floats back and he just kind of tries to bear hug you and maul you, it’s a little tougher to break him down.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Catching up with Greg Eslinger

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: September 20, 2012 - 12:45 PM

I had a chance to catchup with former Gophers center Greg Eslinger, a three-time All-American who won the Outland Trophy and Rimington Trophy during his terrific college career.

Eslinger spent three seasons in the NFL with Denver/Cleveland before retiring from football. He now lives in Fargo with his wife and three young sons, ages 4, 3 and six months.

"You miss a lot of the stuff [about football]," Eslinger said. "You mostly miss the locker room, especially this time of year. You obviously miss the sport, but it’s a little easier on my body what I’m doing now than what I was doing."
 
Eslinger works for a medical company that sells knee and hip replacements. He's present during surgery in case doctors have questions.
 
"I spend a lot of my days in cold OR rooms," he said.
 
Eslinger was one of the most competitive athletes I've ever covered and he's found an outlet for that post-football. He's lost about 70 pounds (he's down to 230) and competes in marathons and mini-triathlons. He's considering competing in a half triathlon next year.

Eslinger also will be inducted into his high school's Hall of Fame in Bismarck in a few weeks. His reaction was typical Eslinger, who always tried to avoid the spotlight as a player.

"I don’t know why they picked me," he said. "They had plenty of good choices from that school. They must have drew me from a hat or something."

Eslinger still watches most Gophers games on TV and tries to attend at least one game each season.
 
"Looks like Jerry Kill has them going in the right direction," he said.
 
Eslinger toured TCF Bank Stadium when he lived in Chaska a few years ago.
 
"Boy, it would have been really nice to play in that," he said. "Nothing against the Metrodome, but wow, that place is nice."
 
 
 
 

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