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.
Tackling the quarterbacks in the spring game is strictly forbidden for the Gophers and most other teams. But that didn’t stop defensive end Theiren Cockran from toppling Mitch Leidner in the second quarter last Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
It prompted the public address announcer to say, half-jokingly, “We don’t encourage that type of behavior in the spring game.”
Agreed. No team wants to see its quarterbacks suffer a senseless injury. But the moment told me two things:
1) Cockran can get to the quarterback. The 6-6, 245-pound redshirt sophomore will be counted on to help replace outgoing senior D.L. Wilhite, who led the team with 8 1/2 sacks last year.
“You’ve gotta control your aggression sometimes,” Cockran said. “I didn’t try to hit [Leidner] too hard. I tried to avoid him at the end, but I just got him a little bit.”
What did the coaches say?
“I haven’t heard about it, but I will soon,” Cockran said after the game. Here's more on Cockran from a story I did last month.
2) Leidner can take a hit. He’s 6-4, 233 pounds. He got up and led his team into the lead with two second-half touchdown passes.
Asked what he thought of the hit, Leidner smiled and said, “I forgot about it. Obviously, just get up right away and shake it off.”
Leidner's durability could be critical. If something happens to starting quarterback Philip Nelson, the Gophers will need Leidner to lead them forward. After him, there's a big drop on the depth chart, as true freshman Chris Streveler has a lot of learning to do.
Here's more on Leidner from last month.
Jamel Harbison can’t wait for practice to start again, on Aug. 1. The Gophers receiver who started last year’s season opener as a true freshman, only to tear his ACL in the first quarter, showed how far he has come during last Saturday’s spring game.
Harbison, who was granted a medical redshirt for last year, had five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown, leading the second-team offense. Not bad consider he's only eight months removed from major knee surgery.
“Jamel’s a dangerous receiver,” Leidner said. “You want to get the ball in his hands.”
The wide receiving corps is the biggest question for the offense. Derrick Engel had five catches for 74 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, but fellow starter Isaac Fruechte managed just one catch for five yards, and Devin Crawford-Tufts was out with a leg injury.
Those are the Gophers three projected starters for this fall, but Coach Jerry Kill makes no secret that the team is looking for more playmakers. Harbison and KJ Maye (two catches, 36 yards in the spring game) are both candidates, as are incoming recruits Drew Wolitarsky and Eric Carter.
Earlier in spring camp, Harbison said his speed was about 85 percent, coming back from the knee surgery.
On Saturday? “Ninety-five percent, just because the tempo was up a little more,” he said. “Felt good cutting on it and everything. So it’s not a problem right now.”
That’s good news for Minnesota's offense.
Note: Former Gophers TE John Rabe has been invited to Vikings rookie camp.
The Gophers have announced the rosters for Saturday’s spring game, which will be a battle between the first-stringers (Maroon Team) and second-stringers (White Team). In other words, the Maroon Team should win, but the White Team will be hungry to prove they belong on the other roster.
At middle linebacker, for example, redshirt freshman Jack Lynn has been playing with the first-team defense for most of the spring, but he finds himself on the White Team, with junior college transfer Damien Wilson starting for the Maroon Team.
At quarterback, it sounds like Philip Nelson (Maroon Team) and Mitch Leidner (White Team) will get a lot of snaps. I’m guessing Chris Streveler (White Team) and Dexter Foreman (Maroon Team) will see action in the second half.
Coach Jerry Kill said some upperclassmen with little to prove, such as senior safety Brock Vereen, might see limited time, but almost everyone who isn't injured should play.
“We’ll start the game with a 15-minute [quarter], like a regular game, and we’ll see how the first half rolls,” Coach Jerry Kill said. “And then, if it goes a little bit longer, and I feel like we’ve gotten what we needed, we might cut it down to a running clock. We’ll divide the teams ... and let them have a little bit of fun.”
What: Gophers Spring Football Game
Where: TCF Bank Stadium
When: 1 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network (7 p.m., tape delayed)
Online: Game will be streamed live on BTN2GO.com
Admission: Free (Gophers encourage a $1 minimum donation toward the Gary Tinsley Memorial Scholarship Fund.)
And did I mention, they’re selling beer?
# NAME POSITION HT WT YEAR
3 Dexter Foreman Quarterback 6-1 220 RS SO
4 KJ Maye Wide Receiver 5-10 197 SO
5 Damien Wilson Linebacker 6-2 254 JR
7 Damarius Travis Defensive Back 6-2 208 SO
8 Cameron Wilson Wide Receiver 6-3 215 RS JR
9 James Manuel Linebacker 6-2 225 SR
9 Philip Nelson Quarterback 6-2 215 SO
13 Derrick Wells Defensive Back 6-0 206 JR
14 Isaac Fruechte Wide Receiver 6-3 204 RS JR
18 Derrick Engel Wide Receiver 6-2 187 RS SR
20 Donnell Kirkwood Running Back 5-10 223 RS JR
21 Brock Vereen Defensive Back 6-0 202 SR
24 Aaron Marmer Wide Receiver 6-3 213 RS SO
27 Cedric Thompson Defensive Back 5-10 211 JR
29 Briean Boddy Defensive Back 5-11 186 JR
30 Mike Henry Fullback 6-1 231 RS SR
31 Eric Murray Defensive Back 6-0 194 SO
33 John McKelvey Defensive Back 6-0 209 RS FR
35 Rodrick Williams Jr. Running Back 5-11 235 SO
36 Cavonte Johnson Defensive Back 5-11 190 RS FR
46 Cameron Botticelli Defensive Line 6-5 290 RS JR
47 Alex Bisch Tight End 6-6 251 RS JR
52 Zac Epping Offensive Lineman 6-2 321 RS JR
55 Theiren Cockran Defensive End 6-6 238 RS SO
57 Aaron Hill Linebacker 6-2 231 RS SR
58 Ed Olson Offensive Lineman 6-7 309 RS SR
59 Joey Balthazor Linebacker 6-3 228 RS SR
62 Zach Mottla Offensive Lineman 6-2 277 RS SR
63 Jon Christenson Offensive Lineman 6-4 306 RS SO
65 Josh Campion Offensive Lineman 6-5 326 RS SO
68 Isaac Hayes Offensive Lineman 6-2 304 RS FR
73 Joe Bjorklund Offensive Lineman 6-5 288 RS SO
74 Marek Lenkiewicz Offensive Lineman 6-5 289 RS JR
80 Devin Crawford-Tufts Wide Receiver 6-2 193 JR
83 Drew Goodger Tight End 6-5 265 JR
85 Lincoln Plsek Tight End 6-4 265 SO
88 Maxx Williams Tight End 6-4 254 RS FR
91 Alex Keith Defensive Line 6-3 237 SO
92 Roland Johnson Defensive Line 6-1 286 SR
94 Harold Legania Defensive Line 6-4 308 RS JR
97 Scott Ekpe Defensive Line 6-4 281 SO
98 Michael Amaefula Defensive End 6-2 244 JR
99 Ra’Shede Hageman Defensive Line 6-6 311 RS SR
# NAME POSITION HT WT YEAR
3 Martez Shabazz Defensive Back 5-11 172 SR
5 Chris Streveler Quarterback 6-2 209 FR
6 Grayson Levine Defensive Back 5-11 202 JR
7 Mitch Leidner Quarterback 6-4 233 RS FR
11 Antonio Johnson Defensive Back 6-0 207 SO
16 Jamel Harbison Wide Receiver 5-11 199 RS FR
16 Steven Montgomery Defensive Back 5-10 210 RS SO
17 Nick Rallis Linebacker 5-11 227 RS FR
18 Peter Westerhaus Linebacker 6-3 230 RS SO
19 Cedric Dicke Linebacker 6-3 221 RS FR
19 Kendall Gregory-McGhee Tight End 6-5 273 RS SR
21 James Gillum Running Back 5-11 214 SR
22 Jeremy Baltazar Defensive Back 6-0 197 SR
23 Edward (EJ) Sardinha Wide Receiver 6-1 197 RS FR
27 David Cobb Running Back 5-11 225 JR
28 Moses Alipate Tight End 6-5 281 RS SR
31 Cole Banham Running Back 5-9 188 RS JR
32 Lamonte Edwards Linebacker 6-2 214 RS JR
34 Jephte Matilus Linebacker 6-1 238 RS SO
35 Dominic Schultz Linebacker 6-1 236 RS SO
39 Duke Anyanwu Tight End 6-4 241 RS FR
40 Alexander Starks Defensive Back 5-11 200 FR
42 JoJuan Harper Running Back 5-10 201 RS SO
44 Gabe Mezzenga Tight End 6-4 245 RS JR
45 Ben Holcomb Wide Receiver 6-4 200 RS FR
50 Jack Lynn Linebacker 6-3 234 RS FR
52 Yoshoub Timms Defensive Line 6-2 276 RS FR
53 Tommy Olson Offensive Lineman 6-4 301 JR
64 Caleb Bak Offensive Lineman 6-3 302 RS JR
66 Luke McAvoy Offensive Lineman 6-5 285 RS SO
67 Brian Bobek Offensive Lineman 6-2 282 JR
69 Tyler Hartmann Fullback 6-3 247 RS FR
71 Kyle McAvoy Offensive Lineman 6-5 305 RS SO
75 Ernie Heifort Offensive Lineman 6-5 281 RS SO
77 Foster Bush Offensive Lineman 6-5 303 RS SO
78 Ben Lauer Offensive Tackle 6-6 302 RS FR
79 Jonah Pirsig Offensive Lineman 6-9 308 RS FR
84 Victor Keise Wide Receiver 6-1 188 RS SR
87 Sahr Ngekia Tight End 6-4 236 RS SR
89 Logan Hutton Wide Receiver 6-1 181 RS JR
93 Ben Perry Defensive Line 6-5 253 RS JR
95 Hendrick Ekpe Defensive Line 6-5 251 FR
96 Jordan Hinojosa Defensive Line 6-3 272 SO
# NAME POSITION HT WT YEAR
15 Marcus Jones Returner 5-8 166 JR
24 Kyle Fodness Kicker 5-11 198 RS FR
36 Chris Hawthorne Kicker 6-6 200 SR
37 Peter Mortell Punter 6-2 195 RS SO
40 Jared Hartman Long Snapper 6-3 229 RS SO
41 Dan Orseske Punter 6-3 205 RS SR
48 Jake Filkins Long Snapper 6-2 240 SR
94 Christian Eldred Punter 6-3 185 JR
96 Dave Ramlet Long Snapper 6-2 238 RS JR
Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith, from the Big Ten Network, watched the Gophers second-to-last spring practice Thursday, inside the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, and seemed to come away impressed.
On Twitter, DiNardo (@gerrydinardo) noted that Jerry Kill's program has looked better each time they've swung through camp, which would now be five times -- Spring 2011, Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012 and today.
"For the 14th practice they got a bunch done," DiNardo tweeted, adding "14 is usually not a productive go."
Kill was less impressed. In an 11-on-11 drill, Cedric Thompson intercepted Philip Nelson and ran for a touchdown. It was among the examples when the offense looked out of sync.
"I think we’ve had 13 good practices," Kill said. "I think today wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as clean as I’d like it. We didn’t go very long, and I think our kids have kind of hit that wall a little bit. We’ve got some guys banged up, which everybody does in spring, and we feel like we’ll get those kids back. It’s been a grind."
Next up for the Gophers is Saturday's 1 p.m., spring game at TCF Bank Stadium. They'll divide into two teams and play 15-minute quarters.
"I’m excited to get out there Saturday, be outside, a little bit different element, and finish off the spring good," Kill said. "Let those kids play and let them have some fun because we’ve been after them pretty good. Split them up and have a good time and hopefully get out of there without any major injuries."
Earlier in camp, the players did some pushing and shoving in one of the practices, and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said that's usually a sign that it's time to scrimmage. The drills can get pretty frustrating. Today was no exception, as Thompson and tight end Drew Goodger got into it, leading to a long multi-player scuffle.
"At the end of camp, everybody is tired, and everybody’s trying to push through," Thompson said. "So at times, everybody loses a screw every now and then. But at the end of the day, we’re still a family. We all shake hands in the lockerroom. We all still love each other."
If it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Big Ten would expand to eventually add more teams besides Rutgers and Maryland -- hold that thought.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The Sporting News on Tuesday that further expansion is unlikely. There had been speculation that the conference was targeting ACC schools such as North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech.
But this week, the ACC adopted a new TV rights deal that ties all 14 teams and Notre Dame into a revenue sharing agreement through 2026-2027. The deal reportedly forces ACC teams to relinquish TV revenue back to the ACC throughout the 14-year contract if they leave the conference.
Asked if that deal would cement the lineups in the five major conferences -- Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac 12 and Big 12 -- Delany told the Sporting News, "Given everything that has gone on, yes."
Rutgers and Maryland will join the Big Ten in 2014, making it a 14-team conference. In coming days Big Ten presidents and chancellors are expected to scrap the Legends and Leaders divisions and divide into East and West divisions for 2014:
East: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin.
I'm not convinced the Big Ten is finished expanding. The Rutgers and Maryland developments came out of the blue last year. It's possible, for example, the Big Ten could convince Missouri to leave the SEC, which hasn't tied teams to a long-term TV contract. There are other possibilities, too, but at the very least, the ACC deal should cool the rampant speculation for a while.
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