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.
It was only the fifth spring practice, too soon to read much into things, but Gophers sophomore cornerback Eric Murray continues to establish himself as a player to watch.
Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he waits until after the sixth practice of the spring to establish a firm depth chart, so the team is still at the stage where the staff is mixing personnel.
Still, it was notable that sophomore Eric Murray was with the first-team defense at cornerback, instead of senior Martez Shabazz. Derrick Wells was at the other corner, as he has been all spring.
The Gophers need to replace two outgoing seniors at cornerback this year, in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. Murray is definitely in the mix.
"After the first four days of practice, he’s really emerged," Coach Jerry Kill said. "He’s got such great focus and great maturity for a young person and tremendous talent.”
Murray -- a 6-0, 194-pound speedster out of Riverside University High School in Milwaukee -- played in all 13 games last season as a true freshman, mostly on special teams.
"Being a freshman coming out of high school, you’re really not accustomed to the speed of the game," Murray said. "So I think that really helped and gave me some more football knowledge on top of the football knowledge I already had."
With the Gophers football team opening spring practice Tuesday, here are some quick notes from Coach Jerry Kill’s press conference today:
* Quarterback Philip Nelson will run the first-team offense, “but he’s going to have to prove it on an everyday basis, just like every other player on the team,” Kill said. “We’ve got two young guys [Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler] that I’m sure are hungry and wanting to show what they can do, and we’re excited about that.”
* Derrick Wells will play some cornerback this spring, in addition to safety. Wells was one of the team’s leading tacklers last year, but the Gophers want to build in some flexibility as they look to replace two starting corners in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire.
* Jamel Harbison and Marcus Jones, who are both coming off knee surgery, have been cleared to practice but will be in green jerseys, limiting their contact. Harbison was one of the team’s top receivers last August, and Jones is moving from wide receiver to cornerback, the position he played in high school.
* Devon Wright is moving from running back to slot receiver.
* Junior-college transfer Damien Wilson and redshirt freshman Jack Lynn will battle for the starting middle-linebacker job. Aaron Hill is staying as an outside linebacker, and this will be a big spring for two other outside linebackers -- James Manuel and Lamonte Edwards.
Note: I'll have more material previewing spring practice in tonight's first editions.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill provided a few injury updates Sunday on his weekly radio appearance with Sid Hartman and Dave Mona on WCCO (hat tip to DL65 over at GopherHole.com) and I was able to confirm these tidbits today:
Senior tackle Ed Olson had left ankle surgery and will miss spring practice. Olson's ankle has bothered him for quite some time, so he had the procedure, aiming to be as strong as possible by Aug. 1.
Senior offensive lineman Zach Mottla, who suffered a compound leg fracture in the Illinois game, will miss spring practice as expected, but the goal is to have him ready by Aug. 1.
Junior WR Marcus Jones, who had ACL surgery last fall, is looking good in his workouts and should be ready for everything but contact in spring practice.
Sophomore WR Andre McDonald is off the roster, as we discussed last week, and won't be back until he re-enrolls in school.
In other news:
Senior DT Roland Johnson, who had ACL surgery before the bowl game, will miss spring practice as expected, but the team hopes to have him ready by Aug. 1.
Redshirt freshman WR Jamel Harbison is further along in his recovery from ACL surgery, since his injury happened in the first game. I can't stress enough how excited the staff is to have this guy back. From what I've heard, he was the team's best receiver last year in fall practice. I'm anxious to get a look at him when spring practice opens March 26.
Former Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray is trying to impress teams ahead of next month’s NFL Draft, but he acknowledged Monday that he’s still recovering from a left-ankle injury.
Gray lowered his 40-yard dash time to 4.67 seconds at Minnesota’s annual Pro Day, down from 4.73 seconds at last month’s NFL Combine. He said when the ankle is fully recovered, his time should be closer to 4.5 seconds.
The high-ankle sprain he suffered last season was starting to feel better before he re-aggravated it in the bowl game, Gray said. He went from there to Florida to train for the combine.
“It’s getting there, but I just don’t have time to rest it right now because I’m working every day,” Gray said.
Gray went through drills at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end Monday, with officials from 13 NFL teams, including the Vikings, on hand to watch. What position gives Gray the best shot at the next level?
“I really have no idea,” he said. “At the combine, I did some good things throwing the ball. And today, I did some good things catching the ball. So I look at that as a double win for me. Being athletic and being able to do some of the things I’ve done -- that’s a positive for me.”
Gray made it clear he’s willing to play whatever position an NFL team wants. But if he had his pick?
“I’m always going to be a quarterback,” he said. “I love playing quarterback. Receiver’s probably my second one because I don’t have to get into a three-point stance. But if a coach asks me to do it [at tight end], then it’s something I’m going to have to do.”
In coming weeks, Gray could get asked to work out for various NFL teams at their facilities. He'll keep trying to improve his stock. The draft is April 25-27.
OTHER GOPHER NOTABLES
Keanon Cooper had the fastest 40-yard dash time of all the former Gophers working out Monday. The linebacker was clocked at 4.50 seconds, and that was with a sore hamstring.
Cornerback Troy Stoudermire was second at 4.51 seconds. Linebacker Mike Rallis and cornerback Michael Carter both were clocked at 4.69 seconds. Rallis impressed with a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 4-inch broad jump.
CHECK THAT STOPWATCH!
Another player who really turned heads was former Northern Iowa receiver Terrell Sinkfield.
A running back at Hopkins High School, Sinkfield went to Northern Iowa and had a fairly quiet career. Last season, he had 43 receptions for 499 yards and four TDs.
But Sinkfield’s vertical jump Monday was 40.5 inches. His broad jump was 11-feet, 5 inches. Then came the 40-yard dash.
Sinkfield’s first attempt was 4.27 seconds. His second attempt was 4.19 seconds. The scouts couldn’t believe their stopwatches, so they made him run it again. That time, he slipped and still ran a 4.41. His average time was 4.33 seconds.
Gray, who has the same agent as Sinkfield, said he wasn’t surprised.
“We work out together,” Gray said. “I see it every day.”
Sinkfield admitted he was especially motivated, getting the chance to work out at the Gophers facility.
“Coming out of Minnesota and not really getting recruited by Minnesota, I felt like I could have been playing here,” Sinkfield said. “I came here with a chip on my shoulder.”
Just in time for the close of the 2012 season, the Gophers have finalized their 2013 football schedule.
With the final details ironed out, New Mexico State has returned to Minnesota a signed contract for a two-game series with the Gophers, executive associate athletic director David Benedict confirmed Tuesday, and the deal, along with a formal announcement, awaits only Norwood Teague's signature. A preliminary version of the contract called for each home team to play the visitor approximately $200,000, making the home-and-home deal a financial wash.
The contract calls for the Gophers to face the Aggies in Las Cruces, N.M., next Sept. 7, with New Mexico State making a return trip to Minneapolis on Sept. 14, 2014. Those dates replace Minnesota's originally scheduled meetings with North Carolina, a contract that was cancelled earlier this year by Teague, Minnesota's athletic director, at the request of Gophers coach Jerry Kill. Minnesota paid the Tar Heels a settlement of $800,000 to cancel that contract.
The Gophers will be trying to avenge a loss when they travel to Aggie Memorial Stadium next September; New Mexico State defeated Minnesota 28-21 in TCF Bank Stadium last September, the teams' only meeting. The Aggies are 1-9 this season, and 0-5 in the Western Athletic Conference, a league that will drop football after this year. The Aggies' athletic department is run by former Gophers athletic director McKinley Boston.
Linebacker Brendan Beal suffered another knee injury Saturday at Nebraska, coach Jerry Kill said, and is definitely out for Saturday's game against Michigan State. Beal has already missed two complete seasons after tearing ligaments in his knee, and Kill said he sat with the junior linebacker in the locker room after the game Saturday. Kill said he is praying for Beal -- "That kid has been through so much," the coach said -- but he believes the injury is serious.
Marcus Jones, another player who has missed time following knee surgery, also re-injured his knee against the Huskers, Kill said, but that injury is not believed to be as serious.
Offensive lineman Mark Lenkiewicz suffered a knee injury as well, but Kill described his status as "questionable" for Saturday.
And defensive tackle Roland Johnson is definitely out after injuring the ACL in a knee Friday night -- during the team's non-contact walk-through. "When you have guys getting hurt in a walk-through, it's not a good day. Not a good week."
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