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.
One day after landing a top tight end recruit from Wisconsin, the Gophers football team got a commitment from one of the top centers in the country.
Connor Mayes became the fifth 2014 commitment for the Gophers. He is rated as a three-star prospect and as the No. 5 center in the nation by Rivals.com. He also has offers from Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Texas Christian, Kansas State and Baylor.
The Gophers also made an offer to the No. 6 center on that list - East Ridge’s J.C. Hassenhauer. But he reportedly has committed to Alabama.
Mayes, from Van Alstyne (Texas) High School, is the younger brother of Alex Mayes, an offensive lineman who just arrived at the University as part of their 2013 class.
On Sunday, the Gophers received a commitment from tight end Gaelin Elmore, from Somerset (Wis.). He has offers from Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State.
Gaelin Elmore, a tight end from Somerset (Wisc.) High School, committed to the Gophers on Sunday, giving them their fourth commitment for the 2014 recruiting class.
Rivals.com has Elmore ranked as a three-star recruit and the nation's 22nd best tight end in the 2014 class. He also had offers from Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill took time in the middle of one of his youth football camps to meet with the media on Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium. Among the news items:
* Sophomore WR Andre McDonald, who missed spring practice and was not enrolled in school because of a personal matter, is in summer school and working out. “So I feel cautiously optimistic he’ll be ready to go” when fall camp opens Aug. 1.
* Kill indicated the biggest questions health-wise are OL Jonah Pirsig (knee surgery), WR Devon Wright (shoulder surgery), C Brian Bobek (viral infection), Zach Mottla (compound leg fracture) and Peter Westerhaus (lingering health concerns).
* Kill said the Gophers have 17 players recovering from surgery. That list includes OL Jon Christenson (ankle) and OL Zac Epping (elbow), but it sounds like they’ll be ready to go Aug. 1.
* Bobek, a transfer from Ohio State, missed much of spring camp and still hasn’t recovered. “He had a real, real serious viral infection,” Kill said. “And I think a lot of that’s gone around the country, but some of that stuff’s taken months and months -- two months, three months -- so it’s a very serious deal. So we’ll just see what they say. Right now, if we were starting tomorrow, he couldn’t go. We hope by camp he’s ready but that’s where we’re at right now.”
* The football team’s 994 APR (Academic Progress Rate) score for the 2011-12 school year was a program record. A 1,000 APR is considered perfect, and the football team has bounced back from a 917 score a few years ago that resulted in the loss of three scholarships. Last June, the Gophers narrowly avoided the same penalty with a 932 multi-year APR score, but this year’s multi-year score (spanning years from 2008-2012) was a 955.
“Someday I’ll write a book on it because to go where we were at, where we were one player away from losing scholarships -- having 25 people on academic warning and three suspended -- and now all of a sudden where we’re at, with basically only 30 new kids in the program," Kill said. "... I give credit to the kids, and I give credit to the coaches and then the academic people.”
Kill added, “All we did as a coaching staff is we held them accountable. We made them go to class, be on time and do what they’re supposed to.”
Every Gophers athletics team received passing marks Tuesday, when the NCAA released its annual Academic Progress Rate (APR) report, and guard Malik Smith moved one step closer to gaining immediate eligibility after transferring from Florida International University.
FIU’s men’s basketball team received a one-year postseason ban for posting a multi-year APR score of 858, well below the 900 cutoff point. Athletes who transfer from a team that is banned from the postseason can get a waiver from the NCAA to compete at their new school without having to sit out a year.
The Gophers have filed for that waiver on Smith's behalf. He averaged 14.1 points as a junior last season for FIU and set a single-season school record by making 96 three pointers.
The latest NCAA multi-year numbers examine the school years from 2008-09 to 2011-12. FIU is paying the price for academic struggles under Isiah Thomas, the coach who preceded Richard Pitino.
Pitino has been credited for helping turn around FIU academically, as well as on the court, before becoming the new Gophers coach.
The annual APR offers a snapshot of how each team is performing academically. The Gophers football team’s multi-year APR increased from 932 last year to 955 this year. In 2009, under then-coach Tim Brewster, the Gophers posted a multi-year APR of 915 and were penalized with a loss of scholarships.
This year, five Gophers teams received perfect 1,000 scores -- baseball, men’s tennis, women’s basketball, women’s gymnastics and women’s soccer. Other notable Gophers scores included 955 for men’s basketball and 987 for men’s hockey.
BYRON, Minn. -- The Gophers athletics department went through the second leg of its new barnstorming tour this week, with stops in Rochester, Austin, Owatonna and Red Wing.
The Rochester event was technically in Byron, at the Somerby Golf Course. It coincided with the 40th annual Rochester Golf Outing, and about 300 people filled tables inside the banquet room, most of them wearing maroon and gold.
AD Norwood Teague, Jerry Kill, Richard Pitino, Don Lucia, Brad Frost, Hugh McCutcheon and several other coaches spoke. I was there for a football scheduling story but thought the whole 90-minute program was pretty entertaining.
Teague noted that Frost’s women’s hockey team finished 41-0 and joked, “We’re looking for more out of him.” M.C. Mike Grimm mentioned that the volleyball team made the Elite Eight last year and has the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class. McCutcheon shrugged and said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s tough to win the derby on a donkey, right?”
Pitino and Lucia added some funny lines, and men’s gymnastics coach Mike Burns spiced up the lunch program by walking to the podium -- on his hands.
Kill takes the mic
Kill talked last. He’s given countless speeches to groups this size, and his comfort level showed. The native of tiny Cheney, Kansas, talked about how much he’s enjoyed going around the state and getting to know Gophers fans.
“Two years ago, I didn’t know much about Minnesota,” said Kill, who was hired in December 2010. “What we have to do is create a football team that reflects you because it’s your football team at the end of the day.”
Kill said the Gophers have placed 24 players from Minnesota on scholarship since his staff arrived, including several who came to the University as walk-ons. The Gophers went 3-9 and 6-7 in Kill’s first two seasons, including a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in last year’s Meineke Car Care Bowl.
“I remember running off the field, I turned to one of my assistants and said, ‘We will get there.’" Kill said. "It’s the first time we hit somebody in the mouth. We played physical. I think we played the way we want to play. We didn’t win the game. ... We found a way to lose. Too many mistakes.”
Examining the foundation
Kill said the team continued to improve through spring practice and especially with the work being done in the weight room.
“As a coach, I feel like we’re better than we were in the bowl game -- right now,” he said. “But what we do in the summertime is critical, and how are our young kids going to handle the summertime? Because we [coaches] can’t be with them. Our strength coach can.
“I think the key to where we’re at right now, is we’ve been fortunate to keep our [assistant] coaches. We’ve had the same coaching staff for two years. That hasn’t happened very often. MarQueis [Gray] had five different coaches, so that will give you an example. To turn around a program, you have to have stability.”
Then Kill mentioned the team’s academic turnaround, saying the team had a dangerously low APR (Academic Progress Rate), when he arrived.
“This is an amazing story,” Kill said. “We were in big time trouble two years ago. I can tell you, we’ve had four back-to-back semesters of 3.0 [cumulative GPA] or better.
“We’ve gotten ourselves out of a hole. And a big reason that’s happened is people working together to help us get out of that hole. We have over half our football team that’s over a 3.0. That’s a miracle in where we were at before.
“So I’m proud of the kids. Now we have to translate that discipline over to the football field. We haven’t done that yet. We haven’t played as clean as we should, but I do think we’re headed that way.”
Recruiting will be the difference
Kill’s recruiting classes have ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten. But the more teams win, the easier it is to attract top recruits.
“There’s not a quick fix,” he said. “It comes down to recruiting. It comes down to getting the right fit, and your strength people have to do a great job. I’d invite you to come down and watch us. We are changing. We used to have 6-foot-3 tackles; we’re about 6-7 and 6-8. We’re starting to look the way you look like in the Big Ten, and our recruits coming in [this month] are going to look a little better.”
Kill took two questions from the audience. Asked about the quarterbacks, he said Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner make him as confident as he was at Northern Illinois, when he had Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. Asked about recruiting obstacles at Minnesota, he said, “I think the biggest obstacle we have is we don’t tell our story well enough.”
“I was 5-6 hours down the road [at Northern Illinois] and played the University of Minnesota [in 2010]," he said. "When I got the call from Joel [Maturi], I really didn’t know that much. My wife and I have been here for two years. I will tell you it’s important for me to win; my wife’s not going anywhere.”
The audience ate that up. Kill had introduced his wife, Rebecca, at the beginning of his speech.
“I’ve been married 30 great years in May -- that’s pretty good No. 1,” Kill said. “Second is, I’d like to continue that marriage, so it is important to win because it’s a great place, and I just don’t know if we brag and tell our story enough. And we’re maybe not proud enough, but we need to tell it throughout the country.”
This barnstorming tour – officially called the “Gophers Road Trip: Chalk Talk 2013” -- is part of that mission. The third and final leg runs through Willmar, Alexandria, Moorhead, St. Cloud, Duluth, Hibbing, Coleraine and Walker, from June 17-20.
“If we can get a young person on our campus, we’ve got a chance,” Kill said. “The biggest part is just getting them here. You hear about the cold. That’s the first thing you hear. People have no idea what this state has to offer, and if we get them here, we’ve got a shot.”
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