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.
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The Gophers resume spring practice today with a 4:15 session that's open to the public at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex. The team is back from spring break, and this will be practice No. 6 of 15 this spring.
Before the break, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was asked which players surprised him through the first five practices.
"There’s probably two of them that are a little bit further along," Claeys said. "I think [safety] Charlie Rogers has done a nice job, for coming in from junior college, and getting thrown into the fire.
"And the other one is Julian Huff, the young linebacker. I mean that kid loves football. He’ll get after you, so I’ve been really pleased with him. He’s got a lot to learn, but the one thing is, you don’t have to tell him to go sic ‘em. I mean, he’ll go get ‘em. So I’ve been really pleased with the way those two new kids have transitioned."
Watching the Gophers' defense at spring practice, the unit that stands out the most is still the secondary. Even with Cedric Thompson headed to the NFL, they are loaded back there and could potentially start four seniors -- Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Eric Murray, Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson -- with former Iowa State safety Charlie Rogers at the nickel.
This spring, the linebackers have made observers do a double take, too. Damien Wilson is headed to the NFL after being a mainstay in the middle, but the Gophers have more overall linebacker talent walking around the field now.
"We’ve got enough bodies [at linebacker]," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "It’s just a matter of straightening out where it’s all going to go together."
Last year, you wouldn't have heard Gophers coaches say they had "enough bodies" at linebacker. They were really concerned about the depth.
They had their three starters -- De'Vondre Campbell, Damien Wilson and Jack Lynn (pictured) -- and a bunch of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Jonathan Celestin emerged as a hard-hitting force behind Campbell. Everett Williams started the Iowa game at middle linebacker. Those two were true freshmen.
The two leading candidates to replace WIlson are Williams and Cody Poock, who is back from his ACL injury.
"He’s got some natural instincts," Claeys said of Poock. The coaches really like Williams, too. Campbell was banged up last week, but Claeys said he'll be ready to go after spring break. The Gophers resume practice March 24, leading up to the April 11 spring game.
The five linebackers expected to get the bulk of the playing time this fall, in no particular order, are: Campbell, Lynn, Poock, Celestin and Williams. De'Niro Laster and Nick Rallis (recovering from ACL surgery) and Ray Dixon and Chris Wipson and newcomer Julian Huff will be among those looking to provide depth.
"I think last year, we wore down a little bit toward the end of the year," Claeys said. "With where we were at [at linebacker], we couldn’t substitute as much as we’d like to, just giving guys a break.
"I’ve been very pleased so far [this spring]. It’ll probably take all of spring ball to figure out how that puzzle’s going to fit together. But for the first time, we’ll probably have as much depth as we’ve had at linebacker, which is a good thing."
Are the Gophers switching to a no-huddle offense? No. But they're definitely working on it during spring practice. So it should be on display again today for the general public, when the team practices at 4:15 at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said after Saturday's practice that that they are still in the developmental stage. The goal is to learn as much as they can during spring camp and then continue working on it during player-led workouts this summer. When August arrives, they'll see where they're at and how much they can use it. Limegrover spoke of adding an element to the offense that they can use when things are getting bogged down.
On Sunday, coach Jerry Kill explained to Sid Hartman and Mike Max on 830-AM that there are benefits to practicing this way, too. They get more reps, so you can get more done in a shorter amount of time. Players have to focus more and think on the fly.
The two players who met with the media Saturday -- tight end Duke Anyanwu and wide receiver KJ Maye -- both seemed to be embracing the no-huddle approach.
"A lot of guys like it," Anyanwu said. "A lot of guys are up to the challenge because some guys like myself who ran a true spread [offense] in high school, it’s kind of like going back to high school ball. And it’s not something that we’re doing for sure; it’s just something that coaches are experimenting with, so it’s a pretty cool experience."
The Gophers aren't using a stop watch, trying to reel off a play every 20 seconds like Oregon.
"We’re worried about lining up and actually running the right play before we can get a time limit on the play," Maye said. "It’s gotten better [in each of the first three practices], but we’re still learning. It’ll take some time."
Freshman running back Jeff Jones might have had his welcome-to-college-football moment Saturday, when he took a handoff and got absolutely de-cleated by linebacker Jonathan Celestin.
But Jones has had some impressive moments, too. He clearly has some burst in those legs and shiftiness. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, and he hasn't looked lost despite being unable to practice last fall when he was ineligible.
"Jeff Jones has done a great job," Limegrover said. "I give that kid a ton of credit. And I give our kids credit. Our guys got together with him and [offensive lineman] Tyler Moore -- some of the new guys -- and those guys did a lot of stuff before we ever hit last Tuesday. So Jeff was further along than I thought. [Fellow freshman RB] Rodney Smith having that year [to practice with the team] has been huge for him. He’s walking around like he’s a veteran now."
After the Gophers first spring practice Tuesday, coach Jerry Kill was asked who stood out.
"Adam Weber stood out," Kill said. "And I mean that in a positive way. I think that’s a good thing we did there [hiring Weber as a graduate assistant]. And certainly after one day’s practice, watching him work, that’s a good thing."
Weber (pictured right with quarterback Jacques Perra) is the school's all-time passing leader. Kill said Weber's presence will allow quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski to "move around a little more," with the rest of the offense.
"It’s one of the best things that can happen for us at the quarterback position," Mitch Leidner said. "Just having someone who’s been through it, someone who’s worked with some of the best in the pros, and having him here to help us with little things has been awesome."
Leidner said he also learned a lot from Ryan Maiuri, who had the team's offensive GA job the previous two years.
"He's a great guy who’s had a huge impact on my life," Leidner said.
Note: The Gophers will hold their second spring practice Thursday, but this one is closed. Beginning Saturday, all practices are open to the public. Here's a full list of the practice dates and times.
The Gophers released their spring football practice schedule. The first two sessions are closed to the public, but the final 13 are open for public viewing, including the April 11 spring game. Here's the full schedule, with dates and times subject to change:
March 3, 4 p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex (Closed to the public)
March 5, 4:15 p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex (Closed to the public)
March 7, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 10, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 12, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 24, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 26, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 28, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 31, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 2, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 4, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 7, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 9, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 10, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 11, 3 p.m. – Spring Game, TCF Bank Stadium
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