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' intersquad scrimmages included a wild card over the weekend. Every so often, when all attention was on the finish of a play being run, Matt Limegrover would shout a surprise announcement:
"Ed Olson's helmet just came off!" Limegrover said he would yell. Or, "MarQueis Gray just lost his helmet!"
They didn't really, but the coaches wanted their players prepared to react to a new rule that takes effect on Thursday. Starting this year, whenever a helmet comes off a player's head, that player must sit out the next play. And the play clock will not be stopped to allow a substitution.
"Guys maybe used to be over there on the sidelines getting a drink of water, but they've got to be paying attention now," said Limegrover, Minnesota's offensive coordinator. "They need to understand that there are only 40 seconds between plays, and we've got to get a play in and run. So you've always got to be ready to go in a hurry."
And leave quickly, too, if your helmet comes off, another emphasis in the practices. That hasn't happened much this fall, Limegrover said, because the equipment staff has taken it as a challenge to avoid such instances as much as possible. "I give Kyle (Gergely) and Andy (Harris) credit, because they go around every day before (warmups) and say, 'Hey, how's it feel? Let me check your chin strap, let me make sure your helmet is properly inflated," Limegrover said. "Coach (Jerry) Kill has let them know ... he expects this not to be a problem, and we have not had many come off."
Limegrover wouldn't be surprised if the rule catches a few teams by surprise, though.
"You would be amazed at how many guys watching the game, who maybe don't think they're going to play, how their helmet is over on the bench, or a manager is holding it and they're 20 yards downfield," he said. "All of a sudden, that position goes down, you turn and say, 'Hey, Johnny! And now he's scrambling. We've burned timeouts and taken delays. And now with this rule, we've been working to make sure these guys understand the importance of being in the game mentally."
The Gophers' fall camp is over. Today they begin working towards facing UNLV next Thursday.
There's no practice for the football team today, but meetings this afternoon will include scouting reports and videotape of the Rebels, and an introduction of the gameplan for Thursday night's season opener in Las Vegas. A normal game week of practices will begin Saturday.
"We've been practicing a mass of people to get prepared" for the season, coach Jerry Kill said, "and now we've got to close that down a little bit to get repetitions" for the starters and backups who will play next week.
Given how young the Gophers are this year -- and it's "maybe the youngest team I've coached in 30 years, next to my second year at Southern Illinois," Kill said -- the coaching staff was tempted to keep practicing all the newcomers, and keep pushing the veterans. But Kill said he recognized the signs of a weary team this week, and decided to back off. Thursday's scheduled full-pads practice was scaled back to a walk-through, essentially giving the team two days of rest before Saturday.
"I felt it was critical. Mentally, we got some work done, but I didn't want to run them," Kill said. "So this allows them to get their legs back, and gives (the coaches) time to make sure we can finalize everything," including the depth chart and game plan. "You sometimes have a tendency to keep pushing, but you can't play with a team that's not going to play fast," he explained.
The coaches had been emphasizing some elements that will be part of the gameplan against the Rebels, Kill said, so they've got a head start on preparations. But now it gets real.
Kill said the new offensive linemen "have been outstanding. But we'd like to redshirt those kids. ... Hopefully we can stay healthy enough to do that. A year ago, we may (have been playing) all three of those guys."
He also complemented junior receiver A.J. Barker as "maybe the surprise of camp." The De La Salle graduate "had a great camp," Kill said. "People don't realize how good an athlete he is. But he hasn't been healthy since I've been here. He's been hamstringed up."
A few extra notes from stories that have run this week:
-- Gopher fans are going to love transfer student Brian Bobek, if my interview with him was any indication. He was talking about how he has no regrets about his year at Ohio State, how he enjoyed the people there and the experience of playing in Ohio Stadium. And when I asked him what his favorite memory of playing for the Buckeyes was, he didn't hesitate:
"The weekend we beat Wisconsin. That whole weekend was great. It was a fun game (the Buckeyes handed the Badgers their second straight loss, 33-29, ending any national championship aspirations the Badgers had). The whole experience was fun, in the stadium and having fun afterward."
So already the sophomore center has had an experience that the Gophers would like to draw upon.
-- Speaking of best memories, Harold Legania had a fun one from his high school days. I wrote about Legania in Wednesday's paper, about how he's been through a lot in his life and is looking forward to being able to play football again, after two seasons on the sidelines.
The Gophers' defensive tackle was describing his days at Edna Kerr High in New Orleans, and recalled one surprising way he helped win a game. "It's my best football memory -- catching an interception in high school," the 20-year-old sophomore said. "Got in the backfield and picked off a screen pass."
Not bad for a 300-pounder. It's also part of the reason he believes this will be a good year for himself and the Gophers. See, it happened again last week, in an intrasquad scrimmage. That has to be an omen, doesn't it?
"When I caught one last week, I was really happy," Legania said. "I feel we've been doubted. I've been doubted all my life, and this school is definitely an underdog, and I love that. That way we can surprise a lot of people. Now, people think 'Minnesota, that's a win, easy.' But that's going to turn."
-- And updating a blog post from earlier in the week: UNLV has chosen redshirt freshman Nick Sherry as its starting quarterback for next Thursday's opener against the Gophers, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Sherry beat out Caleb Herring, a junior who started most of last season for the Rebels. It creates a matchup of huge quarterbacks, because Sherry, like Minnesota starter MarQueis Gray, is 6-foot-5.
The loss of Jimmy Gjere on the Gophers' offensive line became permanent on Monday, when Jerry Kill announced that Gjere's concussion symptoms have returned and he was giving up the game.
It's a blow to the Gophers' depth on the line, but one that Kill and his staff had clearly been bracing for all along. The coach had been in contact with Gjere's parents, likely reassuring them that the Gophers would take no chances with their son's health. And the training staff had monitored his condition all along, knowing that a recurrence wasn't out of the question. After all, just a couple of miles away, the Twins have dealt with a similar situation with Denard Span and Justin Morneau, both of whom have sit out significant portions of the previous two seasons while trying to overcome symptoms that they had hoped were gone for good.
So in the wake of Gjere's understandable decision not to risk permanent damage to his brain, the Gophers will simply execute a plan they clearly had in mind all along. Remember, Josh Campion, another former concussion victim who so far has showed no sign of a relapse, was moved from guard to tackle six months ago because the coaches felt "he looks a little better out there with some space," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said, and because the Gophers didn't know for sure what they would have available on the edge.
In addition, Kill resisted the urge to burn Foster Bush's redshirt last season, even when the Gophers were desperate for healthy bodies on the line. Kill and Limegrover preferred that the 19-year-old from Menasha, Wis., learn to play at this level before getting on the field. Now Bush has a year of practice experience, and he'll step right in behind Campion, helping to lessen the effect of Gjere's absence.
"He's had a good camp," Kill said of Bush. "He's learned a lot."
Kill hasn't given away any decisions yet, but the example of Bush leads me to believe that he doesn't intend to play any of this year's highly prized offensive tackles, either. Ben Lauer and Jonah Pirsig are getting reps in camp, but they're still growing into Big Ten size -- Lauer has increased from around 250 pounds on signing day, Kill said, to roughly 285 now -- and learning Big Ten gamesmanship.
"They are adjusting to the game. This is totally different than what they're used to, just the speed of the game," Kill said. "Jonah's dad was saying, 'Man, the speed is totally different than what he's used to.' "
Even without Gjere, the Gophers have reasonable two-man depth along the line right now, and another seven weeks before Big Ten play begins to get a few of the other returnees up to speed. Sean Ferguson, who played all 12 games last year, is eligible to return to action once school begins, for instance.
So while Gjere's loss is a shame, it shouldn't be crippling.
"I don't mean this in a bad way, but there's no one who's indispensable in this group," Limegrover said of his depth last March. "It wouldn't be like, 'Oh my God, this guy got hurt.' We've got a lot of guys coming along really well."
BY PHIL MILLER
Turns out, Jimmy Gjere's concussion symptoms apparently haven't subsided. The sophomore offensive tackle has decided to end his football career, according to an announcement just released by the Gophers.
That's a real shame, because Gjere sounded upbeat and excited about returning to action when he talked to me last week, for a story that ran in this morning's Star Tribune. He had been symptom-free over the summer, after suffering through several months of being, in his words, "absolutely miserable" following a concussion suffered in Minnesota's loss at Michigan last October.
Gjere, a 6-foot-7, 325-pound graduate of Irondale High, started five games as a redshirt freshman last year, and his future looked bright. Just shows the scary staying power of concussions.
Wide receiver E.J. Sardinha, a freshman from Palm Beach Central (Fla.) High, will take Gjere's place on the roster.
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