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.
The Gophers are headed for a fifth-place finish this year in the Big Ten West, behind Northwestern, according to a poll of 29 writers conducted by Cleveland.com.
The same poll predicted the Gophers would finish last in the Legends Division last year, and the Gophers responded with a 4-4 conference record, finishing ahead of Michigan (3-5) and Northwestern (1-7).
Heading into their fourth year under Coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers need to replace NFL draft picks Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, along with quarterback Philip Nelson and leading receiver Derrick Engel. But overall, it’s an older team that expects to take another step forward this year.
The Big Ten scrapped its Legends and Leaders format and adopted East and West divisions with Rutgers and Maryland joining the conference this year. The Big Ten does not conduct its own media poll, so Cleveland.com has been putting this together for four years. I’m one of the voters and had the Gophers finishing fourth in the West, ahead of Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.
Here’s the predicted order of finish -- note there were more than 29 first-place votes in each division because of predicted ties:
1. Wisconsin, 183.5 points (15 first-place votes)
2. Iowa, 173 points (11)
3. Nebraska, 157.5 points (5)
4. Northwestern, 112 points (1)
5. Minnesota, 96.5 points
6. Illinois, 58 points
7. Purdue, 31.5 points
1. Ohio State, 195 points (23 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State, 180 points (10)
3. Michigan, 136 points
4. Penn State, 105.5 points
5. Maryland, 84 points
6. Indiana, 78.5 points
7. Rutgers, 33 points
Big Ten title game matchup predictions
Ohio State over Wisconsin, 12 votes
Michigan State over Iowa, 5
Ohio State over Iowa, 4
Ohio State over Nebraska, 3
Michigan State over Wisconsin, 2
Michigan State over Nebraska, 1
Michigan State over Northwestern, 1
Nebraska over Ohio State, 1
Preseason vote for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
1. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (13)
2. Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10)
3. Michael Bennett, Ohio State (4)
4. Joey Bosa, Ohio State (1)
4. Jake Ryan, Michigan (1)
Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Award
1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State QB (21)
2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin RB (5)
3. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska RB (2)
4. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State QB (1)
Jeff Jones is not expected to see game action for the Gophers this fall, even if he qualifies academically, according to people close to the situation.
If Jones, the prized recruit from Minneapolis Washburn, clears the NCAA academic clearinghouse in coming days, he would likely redshirt. With practice set to open next Friday, the Gophers already have strong depth at running back depth, and Jones could use the year to get settled academically.
Three sources said Thursday that they’re still optimistic Jones will end up at the university this fall, but Iowa Western Community College remains an option. His standing is still in flux, as his summer school classes stretched into late July.
The Gophers hope to have an answer on whether Jones clears the NCAA clearinghouse and gains his scholarship before practice opens Aug. 1, but it could take until the following week. The team is awaiting word on Jones’ NCAA eligibility, and there’s also the question of whether he’ll make it through the university’s admissions office.
Jones is right on the bubble of qualifying for his scholarship. The NCAA uses a sliding scale – with grades and test scores -- to determine eligibility. Jones had a solid ACT score but his grades weren’t high enough to quality upon graduation from Minneapolis Washburn.
It’s still possible the NCAA will clear Jones to play in 2014, but even in that scenario, all signs point to a redshirt season. The Gophers running back depth chart has seniors David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, junior Rodrick Williams and redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards. Jones would be getting a late start, as most of the team’s freshmen are already on campus, going through strength and conditioning workouts and captain’s practices.
It’s also possible that Jones will make it to the university as a partial qualifier. In that scenario, the NCAA would allow the Gophers to give Jones his scholarship, but he wouldn't’t be eligible to practice or compete for one year.
For Jones, the third option remains playing two years at Iowa Western Community College. Non-qualifiers must spend at least two seasons at junior college – long enough to complete their associates’ degree -- to obtain Division I eligibility.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill announced the team's preseason practice schedule today, with four sessions open to the public, including a scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium on Aug. 9. The Gophers begin practice Aug. 1 and open their season against Eastern Illinois on Aug. 28.
This is always subject to change, but here's a look at how it will unfold for the Gophers:
Aug. 1, 5:15 PM – Practice #1, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Media
Aug. 2, 10:25 AM – Practice #2, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Media
Aug. 3, 10:25 AM – Practice #3, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
Aug. 4, 5:15 PM – Practice #4, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
Aug. 5, 5:15 PM – Practice #5, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
Aug. 6, 5:15 PM – Practice #6
Aug. 7. 5:15 PM – Practice #7
Aug. 8, 5:15 PM – Practice #8
Aug. 9, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #9/#10, Gibson-Nagurski /TCF Bank Stadium, #10 Open to Public/Media
Aug. 10 – No practice
Aug. 11, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #11/#12
Aug. 12, 10:25 AM – Practice #13
Aug. 13, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #14/#15
Aug. 14, 10:25 AM – Practice #16
Aug. 15, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #17/#18
Aug. 16, 6:07 PM – Practice #19
Aug. 17 – No practice
Aug. 18 – No practice
Aug. 19, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #20/#21
Aug. 20, 10:25 AM – Practice #22
Aug. 21, 10:25 AM – Practice #23
Aug. 22 – No practice
Aug. 23, 3:40 PM – Practice #24
Aug. 24, 3:40 PM – Practice #25
Aug. 25, 3:40 PM – Practice #26
Aug. 26, 3:40 PM – Practice #27
Aug. 27 – No practice
Aug. 28 – Game vs. Eastern Illinois at 6 PM
The Gophers will begin practice two weeks from today feeling very good about their offensive line. Ed Olson has graduated, after splitting left-tackle duties with freshman All-American Ben Lauer, and right guard Caleb Bak had to retire because of concussion issues. But a ton of experience returns, along with some talented underclassmen.
Right now, here's my projection for the starting offensive line:
LT Ben Lauer 6-7, 315, 4 career starts
LG Zac Epping 6-2, 318, 34 career starts
C Tommy Olson 6-4, 306, 13 career starts
RG Josh Campion 6-5, 315, 26 career starts
RT Jonah Pirsig 6-9, 320, 0 career starts
Knee and wrist injuries have slowed Pirsig's development a bit, but even with a cast on his wrist during spring practice, the Blue Earth, Minn., native had clearly become a force. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who also coaches the offensive line, said in April that if Pirsig kept progressing, he could start at right tackle, with Campion moving to right guard.
Campion has started 26 consecutive games at right tackle, but there is an opening at right guard with Bak's retirement. Foster Bush [6-5, 304, 4 career starts] filled in admirably for Bak late last season, but there has been an assumption -- from outside the team anyway -- that Bush would be replaced this fall.
But in an interview this week, Limegrover kept several options open. Asked if Campion would be playing tackle or guard when practice begins Aug. 1, Limegrover said, "Yes."
"He’s been working at guard and working at tackle," Limegrover said. "Foster Bush has had a great offseason. This is the first extended period of time where he’s been healthy, been able to get in the weight room, and he’s more explosive than he’s ever been.
"And I think he’s no dummy. He’s looking around going, 'OK, this is my opportunity. I can either just be a guy or I can lay my claim.'
"[Campion] is at a point where, I don’t want to say he’s getting bored palying tackle because he can always get better. But he’s the kind of kid who loves the game. So if there’s additional time he can put in, he’s going to do it and get better at guard.
"You’ve got the young pup from Blue Earth [Pirsig], who’s hungry, who wants to do it. Jon Christenson [6-4, 298, 15 career starts] coming back [from his broken leg], doing a great job. I don’t know when he’ll be ready. I talked to him and said, 'You don’t have to be ready to win us a football game on Aug. 1. We’ll get you back there when you’re ready.' But he’s a smart kid, an experienced kid, a kid who’s worked his tail off. He’ll find a way to be a factor there.
"So a lot of those guys are doing a great job."
It says something about a player's stature with his team when he gets picked to attend the conference's media festivities. That's why it's worth noting that the Gophers will send Mitch Leidner, David Cobb and Cedric Thompson to Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, July 28-29.
That gives Minnesota three team leaders with three unique stories.
Leidner is a redshirt-sophomore and the clear starter at quarterback. (Here's a link to a profile I did on him last October, noting how the Gophers recruited him -- as a tight end.)
Cobb is heading into his senior season after rushing for 1,202 yards last year and becoming the first Gopher to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since 2006. (Here's a story on how Cobb persevered despite limited carries as a freshman and sophomore.)
And Thompson is also heading into his senior season at safety, after leading the team with 79 tackles last year. (Here's Thompson's story, which is as interesting as anything I've come across in sports.)
Here's the full list of Big Ten players heading to Chicago later this month.
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