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.
The Gophers just released their first depth chart and injury report. No big surprises here on the two-deep. Chris Hawthorne has been listed as the starting kicker. All four punters are listed as possible starters. Here's the link.
Heading into Thursday's opener against UNLV, It’s hard for me to know how good this Gophers team is. I’m struck by how confident the players and coaches are in the direction they’re heading, but I realize that’s a common theme for any team in August.
One thing I’ll say is this team should be a compelling team to follow. The individual stories continue to surprise me. If there’s a general theme, it seems to be a group of underdogs who’ve worked tirelessly – on and off the field -- to get to this point, overcoming whatever obstacles stood in their way. Here’s a sampling:
The head coach, Jerry Kill, has overcome cancer and epilepsy, winning 136 games in 19 seasons.
The offensive coordinator, Matt Limegrover, had gastric bypass surgery in May 2012 and has dropped from 403 pounds to about 235, while completely changing the way he eats.
The team's top NFL prospect, Ra'Shede Hageman, went through 12 foster homes before being adopted by a Minneapolis couple, who helped mold him into the man he is today, as Amelia Rayno explains here.
One starting safety, Cedric Thompson, grew up in Compton and escaped the gang violence by moving to a surreal place on the Salton Sea called Bombay Beach, where he used to wake up each morning for a two-hour bus ride to school.
The other starting safety, Brock Vereen, has a brother in the NFL. Growing up, their parents had a rule that they couldn’t play football until they were finished with their homework.
One of their tight ends, Maxx Williams, is the son of two former Gophers athletes, which only begins to explain his athletic bloodlines.
The starting center, Jon Christenson, is a former walk-on who plans to become a doctor someday, which would just add him to the long list of doctors in his family. He’s also the grandson of a best-selling author.
Starting defensive tackle, Cameron Botticelli, is a former walk-on who plans to pursue a law degree.
Another former walk-on, linebacker Aaron Hill, has emerged as one of the team's defensive leaders.
One starting defensive end, Theiren Cockran, was the third most decorated member of his high school defensive line.
The starting middle linebacker, Damien Wilson, came to the Gophers from Jones County (Miss.) Community College, where he played for former NFL head coach Ray Perkins.
The top returning rusher, Donnell Kirkwood, is the son of a welder who built sleds out of steel pipe for the whole Delray Beach, Fla., neighborhood, helping those kids improve their speed.
They all have interesting backgrounds, so it'll be fun to see how well they come together as a team.
Gophers freshman running back Berkley Edwards suffered a high ankle sprain Wednesday and had a walking boot on his right foot Thursday. His status for next Thursday's season opener against UNLV is uncertain.
"He’s fine," Coach Jerry Kill said. "He didn’t break a leg or anything like that. He got bent up. They won’t know really until things settle down, if he’ll be ready to go or not be ready to go. But fortunately it's not a broken leg or anything of that nature."
Another concern for the Gophers is cornerback Derrick Wells. He jammed a shoulder early in camp and still has bruising in the joint. He was in an orange non-participation jersey Thursday and is questionable for the UNLV game.
Wide receiver Derrick Engel has been in a green, no-contact jersey as he recovers from a groin injury. Kill sounded confident that Engel would be ready to go full speed on Saturday. Freshman wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky has returned from his hamstring injury.
Opening Night is one week from tomorrow. Here are some quick notes from Wednesday's practice:
* WR Derrick Engel (groin injury) hasn’t been cleared for contact, but he went through some individual drills today.
* WR Drew Wolitarsky (hamstring injury) has been back at practice the past two days, but the freshman has some catching up to do.
* Asked if the game plan changes with Andre McDonald out (violation of team rules), offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said, “Not really because, to be honest with you, Andre had a lot of work that he needed to do to really be a force for us. He would have had that opportunity, had he been able to stick around. But you know, we’re really starting to get comfortable with five or six [receivers], and I think those guys are feeling good.
“Other than maybe getting nicked up a little bit here or there in practice, I think we’re going to be healthy and we’re going to have a pretty good group.”
* CB Marcus Jones, who has fully recovered from a second ACL surgery in his knee, will be one of the players returning kicks and/or punts this year.
“You always go back to trust factor, and Marcus has [returned kicks] in a game,” Coach Jerry Kill said. “So I can tell you he will be a part of the mix. He’s has experience and you can’t replace experience.”
* Limegrover on reserve quarterback Chris Streveler: “It’s like that light bulb’s come on, kind of like what happened with [Philip Nelson] about Week 3 of fall camp [last year]. [Streveler] went through the spring, had his ups and downs. Early part of camp, wasn’t really feeling comfortable and all of a sudden, the light bulb went on. We’re pretty excited and pretty encouraged about Chris, especially the last four or five days.”
Gophers coach Kill confirmed after Tuesday's practice that Philip Nelson would be the starting quarterback for the Aug. 29 opener against UNLV – not that there was any doubt.
Mitch Leidner will be the primary backup, with Chris Steveler the No. 3 option and Donovahn Jones shifted to wide receiver.
“A kid I feel really good about right now is Chris Streveler,” Kill said. “[In scrimmages], he just plays, and the chains move and good things happen.”
* Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is preparing in case UNLV comes out running a no-huddle offense under first-year offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach. With all the focus on who will start at middle linebacker – Damien Wilson or Jack Lynn – Claeys intends to play two units of linebackers a lot.
“We’re not going to know [the best starters to use] until after the first game,” Claeys said. “A lot of kids can practice, and all of a sudden, they get in the game, and they don’t play very well. So we’ll have two groups ready to go.”
* Freshman linebacker De’Niro Laster returned from his knee injury Tuesday, ahead of schedule. He’ll get several reps late in camp, with the coaches strongly considering playing him this year, at least on special teams.
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