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.
When the Gophers open spring practice March 3, many eyes will be drawn to the quartet of wide receivers who redshirted last fall -- Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland and Jerry Gibson.
The Gophers have struggled at receiver, and they need to replace Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones. Drew Wolitarsky and KJ Maye are back, but after that, there's no wide receiver on the roster who caught more than one pass last year.
Coach Jerry Kill has raved about his redshirt freshmen quartet. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was more measured when I spoke to him this week.
“I know Coach [Kill] is pretty high on them, and I can see why,” Limegrover said. “Are they going to be complete receivers on April 11? Probably not. Are they going to be complete receivers on Sept. 1? Probably not. You’ve got to get through the growing pains with them, let them work against a darn good secondary for the next six months.”
That's a great point about the secondary. These receivers will need to be good if they're going to catch passes against the likes of Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Jalen Myrick and Craig James. The Gophers would put those cornerbacks up against anybody.
"[The redshirt freshmen receivers] work really hard," Limegrover said. "They put in extra time with the quarterbacks, and hopefully that’s going to pay off. We’ll see exactly how far they’ve come obviously in the spring, but they’re doing the right things.
"All of them have the potential to be very complete receivers. ... One of them probably will [emerge] a little quicker than the others. I can’t sit here and say right now which one that will be. One will impress a little bit sooner, one may take a little longer. But the one that takes longer, maybe by the end of his career, he'll be the one that continues to steadily increase and becomes the best one of the group.
"It’s just hard to say who that is at this point. I just like watching them run around, that’s for sure."
I caught up with Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover on Tuesday to get his thoughts looking ahead to spring practice, which starts March 3. Limegrover is always a good quote, so I'll be sprinkling his comments into my coverage throughout camp. For now, here are a few of the things I gleaned from the conversation:
* Limegrover plans to give Josh Campion a good look at guard this spring, knowing he could always move back to tackle. This would allow a potential starting O-line that includes the 6-7 Ben Lauer at left tackle and 6-9 Jonah Pirsig at right tackle, with the 6-5 Campion at one of the guard spots.
* But Limegrover isn't promising anything to Lauer or Pirsig. He challenged Lauer, specifically, feeling that he wasn't quite as driven as he need to be coming into last season after earning Freshman All-American honors in 2013. He knows Lauer dealt with a high ankle sprain and mono last fall but wants him to bring his A-game this spring. The same goes for Pirsig, even though he made big strides last season.
* With Tommy Olson graduated and Jon Christenson not expected to practice this spring, the center duties will primarily go to Brian Bobek and Connor Mayes. The Gophers expect Christenson to play a big role this fall, and they just want to him to focus on building strength after having a rod removed from his leg last week. Mayes and Christenson are candidates to start at center, as well as guard. Matt Leidner, Mitch's younger brother, provides depth on the center depth chart, and the Gophers might give some snaps to early enrollee Tyler Moore.
* Jerry Gibson will come to camp as a wide receiver. Someday, he might move to H-back, in the mold of Maxx Williams, but he hasn't put on enough weight for that yet. For now, Gibson is part of a talented quartet of wide receivers who redshirted last year, along with Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland.
* The two leading candidates to replace Williams at H-back are Duke Anyanwu (who tore an ACL in early August) and Nick Hart.
* The three leading candidates to replace Drew Goodger at the Y-tight end spot (more of a blocking position) are Lincoln Plsek, Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak. Lingen saw time behind Williams last year as a true freshman, but his future is at the Y-spot.
* As for replacing David Cobb, Limegrover said that will probably be a multi-person job, though he did say, "I think Rodrick [Williams] is working hard to prove that he can be a 22-25 carry, 55-65 play guy." Limegrover is also excited to see what Berkley Edwards, Rodney Smith and Jeff Jones can do this spring.
* Limegrover also can't wait to see how Mitch Leidner builds off the experience he gained as a full-time starting QB last fall. "I thought Mitch really settled down as the season went on, and I think there’s a comfort level," Limegrover said. "There’s just an air about him that’s completely different than it was last Feb. 17, just because it’s like, 'I've been through this all for a year. I’m going to be the starter. I’m going to be the guy.' There’s just a calmness to him now that I really like."
Jerry Kill continues to have full confidence that the University of Minnesota will be ready to break ground on its new $150 athletic facilities project in August.
“I expect [the shovel] to be in the ground during two-a-day camp,” Kill said Friday. “That’s what I’ve said all along, and I expect that to happen. … I’ve told the recruits, and so it needs to get done.”
University CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter said last week that as with any university project, at least 80 percent of the money ($120 million) must be raised before construction can begin. Athletics Director Norwood Teague said $70 million has been raised thus far.
A Board of Regents document released last week states that a complete financing plan must be ready for approval at the June 11-12 Regents meeting in order to begin construction by October.
“I think when the board finalizes it in June, they should be able to get going immediately,” Kill said. “I don’t know the 80 percent rule, 70 percent rule, 90 percent rule -- that’s their job to figure all that out. They know we need to get it started in August.”
This week, the Board of Regents approved using $15 million of the money already raised for the project’s schematic design.
“That’s tremendous,” Kill said. “Right there, that tells you. Once you do that, things move pretty fast.”
* Offensive lineman Jon Christenson had a rod inserted into his left leg when he broke his tibia and fibula in a gruesome injury in November 2013. Christenson returned last season and started the Citrus Bowl at right guard. Christenson recently had the rod removed from the leg. The Gophers plan to withhold him from spring practice, but Kill said Christenson “will be a starter” again this fall.
* Cody Poock, who tore the ACL in his right knee last March, will be at full speed for spring practice and is a candidate to replace departing senior Damien Wilson as the starting middle linebacker.
* Duke Anyanwu, who tore the ACL in his right knee early in August, also has been cleared for spring practice, Kill said. Anyanwu is one of several candidates the Gophers are counting on to help replace NFL-bound tight end Maxx Williams.
* Scott Ekpe, who tore an ACL in last year’s season opener, is also making good progress but likely will be limited during spring ball. “We know what he can do,” Kill said. “We’ll make sure he’s healed up. He may get a few reps, but we’re going to be careful there.” The Gophers need to replace Cameron Botticelli, but they expect to have Ekpe and Steven Richardson back as their starting defensive tackles.
Veteran recruiting analyst Tom Lemming honored Jerry Kill with National Coach of the Year honors last week on CBS Sports Network. Lemming also recognized Gophers recruiting director Billy Glasscock as one of five national directors of operations of the year.
Lemming told me today that Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have been repeated winners of his National Coach of the Year award, and he wanted to recognize Kill. Jimbo Fisher was another finalist.
"I take everything into account, how you built it up from scratch," Lemming said. "[Minnesota] was down in the dumps for a long time, and [Kill's] doing it the right way, evaluating and developing the top prospects.
"It’s a lot easier to build up Ohio State or Alabama or Florida State -- the other three finalists in our coach of the year thing. I just thought he made more of an impact than they did at their schools and actually made a bigger jump than they did."
Lemming had good things to say about several of the recruits in Minnesota's 2015 class. A sampling:
QB Demry Croft: "Nobody knows about him. I’m only an hour away from [Rockford, Ill.], so I go up there and I’ve seen him. I love the kid. He’s got great potential. He’s that good. He could be a big, big time guy. He could be the guy that could lead them to a Big Ten championship someday."
DB Antonio Shenault: "He's another big-time, four-star kid out of Chicago. Legit cover corner. He’s got terrific all-around ability."
OL Quinn Oseland: "He has an excellent offensive line coach at Sacred Heart-Griffin [in Springfield, Ill.] State champs again this year. Quinn Oseland has potential to be an All-American at Minnesota."
Melvin Rice played for Jerry Kill at Northern Illinois and joined the coaching staff there in 2010 as a graduate assistant. He came to Minnesota with the staff in 2011, working tirelessly behind the scenes for the past four years as the team's defensive quality control assistant.
Now, Rice is moving on to become the cornerbacks coach at Southeast Missouri State. Gophers defensive coach Jay Sawvel made the announcement on Twitter:
Good luck to one of my favorites @coachMRice the new Corners coach at Southeast Missouri - very proud to have coached and worked with him— Jay Sawvel (@JaySawvel) January 15, 2015
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