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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Monticello lineman Conner Olson commits to Gophers

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gopher recruiting Updated: May 5, 2015 - 9:20 PM

The Gophers football team continues to pluck in-state players for its 2016 recruiting class, with the latest being Monticello offensive lineman Conner Olson.

Olson gave the Gophers a verbal commitment Tuesday, becoming the seventh player from the 2016 class to do so, and the sixth from Minnesota.

Olson is a 6-5, 270-pound lineman who also had reported offers from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. He currently has a three-star rating from 247Sports.com.

The Gophers' other in-state commitments include Thomas Barber (linebacker, Robbinsdale Armstrong), Carter Coughlin (linebacker, Eden Prairie), Jojo Garcia (defensive tackle, East Ridge), Philip Howard (athlete, Robbinsdale Cooper) and Sam Schlueter (offensive lineman, Mayer Lutheran).

Olson announced the news on Twitter:

Philip Nelson will restart college career at South Alabama

Posted by: Joe Christensen under College football Updated: May 1, 2015 - 9:21 AM

Former Gophers and Rutgers quarterback Philip Nelson plans to restart his college football career this fall at South Alabama, his father said in an e-mail Thursday.

Nelson played 19 games for the Gophers between 2012 and 2013 before transferring to Rutgers in search of a more pass-oriented offense. Rutgers kicked Nelson off its team last May after he was involved in a fight that left former Minnesota State Mankato player Isaac Kolstad with brain injuries.

Initially charged with two felonies – first and third-degree assault – Nelson eventually pled guilty to a fifth-degree assault misdemeanor and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. He had considered transferring to Fresno State before a delay in the sentencing process last winter.

Nelson still has two years of eligibility remaining and can compete this fall.

South Alabama, which is located in Mobile, established its football program in 2009 and gained full Football Bowl Subdivision (Division-IA) status in 2013. (Corrected from earlier version.)

The Jaguars, of the Sun Belt Conference, went 6-7 last season, losing to Bowling Green in the Camellia Bowl. Their non-conference schedule this fall includes games at Nebraska, San Diego State and North Carolina State.

Under Jerry Kill, Gophers are emerging from NFL draft drought

Posted by: Joe Christensen under NFL draft, Gophers Updated: April 30, 2015 - 11:04 AM

The Gophers didn't have a player picked in the NFL draft between 2011 and 2013, as a wave of Tim Brewster recruits mostly fizzled.

The drought ended last year when the Falcons selected Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round, with the Bears taking Brock Vereen in the fourth round. Those two were both Brewster recruits, and now comes the first wave of Jerry Kill recruits at Minnesota to hit the NFL.

The Gophers can count on having two players drafted sometime over the next three days, in tight end Maxx Williams and running back David Cobb. Linebacker Damien Wilson and safety Cedric Thompson are both potential late-round picks. If at least three get drafted, it would be the most for the Gophers since they had four players picked in 2006, including first rounder Laurence Maroney.

ESPN.com's Big Ten Blog compiled a list of how many draft picks each school has produced over the past five years, with Ohio State (22), Iowa (22) and Wisconsin (21) on top, and the Gophers (4) on the bottom. But things are definitely changing under Kill.

Thinking ahead to 2016, the Gophers could have another wave of NFL picks with cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, safety Damarius Travis and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell among the senior possibilities.

Here's a look back at the Gophers recent draft history:

2014 -- Ra'Shede Hageman DT 2nd (37th) Atlanta; Brock Vereen S 4th (131st) Chicago
2010 -- Eric Decker WR 3rd (87th) Denver; Nate Triplett LB 5th (167th) Minnesota
2008 -- Dominique Barber S 6th (173rd) Houston
2007 -- Matt Spaeth TE 3rd (77th) Pittsburgh
2006 -- Laurence Maroney RB 1st (21st) New England; Anthony Montgomery NT 5th (153rd) Washington; Greg Eslinger C 6th (198th) Denver; Mark Setterstrom OG 7th (242nd) St. Louis
2005 -- Marion Barber III RB 4th (109th) Dallas
2004 -- Thomas Tapeh FB 5th (162nd) Philadelphia
2003 -- Michael Lehan CB 5th (152nd) Cleveland
2002 -- Ron Johnson WR 4th (123rd) Baltimore; Matt Anderle OT 6th (178th) San Diego; Greg White DE 7th (229th) Houston
2001 -- Willie Middlebrooks CB 1st (24th) Denver; Karon Riley DE 4th (103rd) Chicago; Ben Hamilton C 4th (113th) Denver; Adam Haayer OT 6th (199th) Tennessee
2000 -- Tyrone Carter SS 4th (118th) Minnesota; Thomas Hamner RB 6th (171st) Philadelphia

Cedric Thompson could be answer for NFL Draft's safety puzzle

Posted by: Joe Christensen under NFL draft, Gophers Updated: April 28, 2015 - 1:05 PM

I kept thinking about former Gophers standout Cedric Thompson, as I read this story by Vikings beat writer Matt Vensel: "Standout safeties hard to find in NFL draft."

The Vikings, like many teams, will enter this weekend’s NFL draft with the intention of selecting a safety, a position that now has increased job responsibilities as spread passing attacks and athletic tight ends have become commonplace at the pro level.

The problem is that the supply does not match the demand, and the style of offense played at the college level has made safety one of the toughest positions for the NFL to evaluate.

Thompson will be an interesting player to track Saturday, on the final day of the draft. And if he doesn't go by the seventh and final round, it won't take him long to get invited to an NFL rookie camp.

Anybody who's followed my Gophers coverage closely the past 2+ years can probably guess how I feel about Thompson. In my 20+ years of sports writing, he ranks right at the top of the people I've ever come across. The story of his rise from Bombay Beach, Calif., to the Big Ten, and soon the NFL -- it's the stuff of movies. Actually, Thompson was featured prominently in the award-winning documentary "Bombay Beach." The place looked so surreal, we had to go see it. Thompson gave a guided tour two years ago, when photographer Jerry Holt and I went to see him for this story and video.

Anyway, the guess here is that Thompson will get drafted Saturday. That might surprise some people because Thompson wasn't invited to the NFL Combine, but he lit it up at the Gophers' pro day. Here's the report from NFLDraftScout.com:

Thompson ... ran his 40-yard dash in the 4.38-4.44 range and recorded impressive results in the vertical (40.5-inches), broad jump (10-feet-2) and bench reps (21), according to a scout in attendance.

Compare that to how the safeties fared at the NFL Combine. From what I can gather, Thompson would have had the fastest 40-yard time, the highest vertical leap, and tied for the most bench reps. Last year, former Gophers safety Brock Vereen had his stock climb and wound up becoming a fourth round pick by the Bears. Thompson might become the Gophers' next draft surprise.

As Vereen told Jack Satzinger for this piece in today's Minnesota Daily: Thompson's "name might have blown up after his Pro Day, but [for] anybody who’s played with him, his performance wasn’t a surprise at all. He’s just one of those guys who’s just a freak athlete [and] smart — definitely as smart of a [defensive back] as you’ll come across. He just loves the game."

Teague hints on podcast that big fundraising gifts are coming, says facilities project on track for August groundbreaking

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gophers Updated: April 24, 2015 - 4:49 PM

AD Norwood Teague said this week on the Gophers Sports Podcast that "everything's proceeding to break ground in August" on the university's $150 million athletics facilities project.

In an interview with Justin Gaard and Mike Grimm, Teague said the amount of money raised is still about $70 million, but the AD gave strong hints that some big gifts are being finalized.

"We’ve got to get some gifts committed and finish some things up before the June board of regents meeting," Teague said. "We can take another step there, but everything’s proceeded to break ground in August.

"We [have] no major problems right now. ... We’ve got kind of two groups out there right now, in addition to the $70 million we have committed. We have a good group of pending gifts, those that we’ve asked. And when you ask for a large gift, it takes a while for people to say yes because of either estate planning or lawyers or insurance or whatever it may be.

"So we have that group, and we have some others that we’re getting ready to go to who obviously know that we’re coming. And some of those are larger-in-esque, as we would say. So I feel very good about it."

The full interview can be found here.

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