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.
Zac Epping has made 34 consecutive starts on the Gophers offensive line, and he thinks that unit is capable of big things this year.
“I think we can be the best O-line in the Big Ten and possibly the country,” he said. “We have the size, strength, depth for it right now. We’ve just got to come in and perform and be consistent.”
Coach Jerry Kill thinks senior Tommy Olson will be one of best centers in the Big Ten. Epping is at left guard. Ben Lauer, who is recovering from a high ankle sprain, was a freshman All-American last year at left tackle. Junior right tackle Josh Campion has started the first 26 games of his college career.
The Gophers have Foster Bush at right guard, with the 6-9, 320-pound Jonah Pirsig knocking on the door for a starting spot. Brian Bobek is back to full health, backing up Olson at center. Kill said Isaac Hayes has been coming on strong at guard. And Jon Christenson (15 career starts) continues to recover from a serious broken leg injury.
Added up, the Gophers have 105 career starts on the offensive line.
Epping, a 6-2, 318-pound senior from Kenosha, Wis., doesn’t like dwelling on his own ironman streak.
“I really don’t think about it,” he said. “I mean, some of my teammates, my parents, my brothers – they’ll like talk about it. But I don’t like to keep track of that. Just got to stay healthy this year and keep going.”
Asked what it takes to compile a streak like that, he said, “You’ve just got to be consistent, never take a play off.”
With the season opener coming Thursday, the Gophers pushed up Coach Jerry Kill's weekly press conference to Saturday. Some quick highlights:
The competition for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Mitch Leidner has been settled, with Chris Streveler getting the nod over fellow redshirt freshman Conor Rhoda.
"There is no question Chris Streveler is our number two quarterback," Kill said.
Streveler struggled in the team's scrimmage Aug. 9 at TCF Bank Stadium, but coaches described that as a blip for him in an otherwise strong camp.
Kill said sophomore wide receiver Donovahn Jones had a good camp and is playing the best he's played. "But I have to tell you," Kill said, "the guy that's had the best camp is KJ Maye, without a doubt."
Maye was slowed by a sports hernia injury last year and managed just seven receptions for 70 yards.
"He’s a great player," Leidner said. "All through camp, he’s been 100 percent, full speed, the whole time. And I’m just really excited to see him break out this season and have a good year."
First, a clarification: I went back and listened to Jerry Kill's interview with Sid Hartman and Dave Mona from Sunday on 830-AM, and I had missed an answer where Kill was more definitive about the redshirt plans.
Kill said Andrew Stelter, a true freshman defensive lineman from Owatonna, will definitely play this year, and the same goes for Brandon Lingen, a true freshman from Wayzata.
Among the other true freshmen Kill expects to play are defensive linemen Steven Richardson and Gaelin Elmore, linebacker Jonathan Celestin and cornerback Craig James. I wrote about Richardson and Elmore last week, as those could be impact moves for the defense.
Kill said he has five or six more true freshmen in the mix for playing time. I know that list includes TE/WR Jerry Gibson, WR Melvin Holland Jr., and WR Isaiah Gentry. Some of these decisions will get made this week, and some could linger into the season, Kill said.
Linebacker depth a question mark
The Gophers expect big things from their first-team linebackers -- De'Vondre Campbell (6-5, 240 pounds), Damien Wilson (6-2, 240) and Jack Lynn (6-3, 240) -- but there is some concern about their linebacker depth.
Junior college transfer Cody Poock appeared headed for a starting role before he tore an ACL during spring practice. Poock has pushed hard to return in time for the Big Ten opener (Sept. 27 at Michigan), but I'll be surprised if he doesn't redshirt.
The second unit has been De'Niro Laster (6-4, 230), Nick Rallis (5-11, 228) and Ray Dixon (6-3, 209). Rallis can play all three LB spots, much like Lynn. Laster and Dixon, both redshirt freshmen, made good strides during spring practice, but Dixon has been banged up during camp.
Celestin (6-1, 209, from Jonesboro, Ga.) will play, and the Gophers like Everett Williams (6-1, 230, Mansfield, Texas) a lot, too.
"Those are guys we’re going to push to not be redshirted because they’re both athletic enough, and they both work really hard," Linebackers coach Mike Sherels said Friday. "Those two guys have done a great job of coming in and inserting themselves and learning the process. The freshman factor hasn’t caught up with them yet."
Gophers coach Jerry Kill gave Sid Hartman and Dave Mona several new insights this morning on WCCO AM-830. Notably:
* Senior defensive tackle Harold Legania has moved to the offensive line, a switch to give him a better chance at playing time this year.
* Offensive lineman Jonah Pirsig has been out for four or five days with a groin injury. Nothing serious, but another bump in the road for the redshirt sophomore.
* Starting left tackle Ben Lauer has a sprained ankle but should be back Tuesday.
* Junior lineman Josh Campion has played right tackle, left tackle and right guard during camp because of those injuries.
* Kill reiterated that Gaelin Elmore will play this year at defensive end.
* Kill said true freshman Jerry Gibson has been playing H-back (tight end), as well as inside wide receiver.
* Jonathan Celestin, a true freshman linebacker from Jonesboro, Ga., had a “real nice scrimmage” and will play this year.
* Kill also praised true freshman tight end Brandon Lingen, from Wayzata, saying he’ll play, too. Kill said true freshman DE Andrew Stelter has had an “outstanding camp,” though it wasn’t clear if that means Stelter will play this year.
Note: I accepted the #icebucketchallenge from Chip Scoggins, and issued my own to Cedric Thompson, Mitch Leidner and David Cobb. Check out the clip -- our daughter steals the show. Fun way to support a great cause. Help #strikeoutALS.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill has made no secret that he wants to break ground on a new practice facility as soon as possible. Today, Big Ten Network visited campus, and BTN.com writer Tom Dienhart issued this tweet:
I don’t know the context of Kill’s conversation with Dienhart, but I do know that the university has yet to set a formal timeline for building any new practice facilities. They remain in the "silent fundraising phase" of their $190 million facilities plan.
“We are going to break ground as soon as we possibly can; that hasn’t changed,” Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Werle said today.
At Big Ten Media Days last month, Kill was outspoken about his facility goals.
“I tell recruits, we’ve got a good idea where it’s going to be,” Kill told reporters. “We’ve got spring ball starting. In April, we finalize it, and start getting in the ground as soon as we can.
“April would be [a good time] to me. They can even do it in December the way they work around here in the weather. … That’s what Coach wants, and that’s what we need, and anything different than that, I’m not going to be happy.”
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