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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One week before their annual spring game, the Gophers held their most extensive scrimmage of spring practice Saturday.
The defense dominated early, keeping the offense without a point for the first seven drives. But the Gophers started running their hurry-up offense, and converted several big plays.
Here were some notable highlights:
- Cedric Thompson made a terrific interception to halt the first drive.
- Ryan Santoso made field goals of 26 and 46 yards. Andrew Harte hit a 43-yard field goal, and those two combined to make every extra point. Those two are both redshirt freshmen.
- Mitch Leidner hit KJ Maye with a 50-yard touchdown pass.
- Donnell Kirkwood had rushes for 7, 8, 37, 9, 19 and 10 yards.
- Chris Streveler completed a 32-yard pass to Eric Carter
- Rodrick Williams had touchdown runs of 7 and 15 yards.
- Berkley Edwards had 49-yard touchdown run.
- Logan Hutton made a big diving catch on a throw by Conor Rhoda.
- Leidner added a 29-yard touchdown run.
For more perspective, noting which defense was on the field for each drive, etc., here’s a summation from my play-by-play notes:
First-offense (Leidner at QB) vs. first defense
Cobb: 2 rushes, 16 yards.
Kirkwood: 1 rush, 7 yards
Last play: Leidner threw a pass for Plsek that got tipped, and Cedric Thompson intercepted it with an acrobatic play.
The Gophers announced today that Saturday's practice (11:20 a.m., Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex) will be the final one open to the public and media before the April 12 spring game.
The team can practice up to three times next week before the spring game (since teams are allowed up to 15 spring practice sessions) but anything between the next two Saturdays is closed.
The spring game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m., at TCF Bank Stadium, and will be telecast on Big Ten Network.
Ndondo-Lay making his mark
As a beat writer, I'll take any access I can get, of course. One under-the-radar player who has stood out to me this spring, for example, is Robert Ndondo-Lay. He's a redshirt junior defensive lineman from Minneapolis DeLaSalle who transferred to Minnesota last summer from Winona State.
He's a 6-5 athlete in a No. 69 jersey, and the tenacity he has charging the quarterback, if not the skill, reminds you a bit of Jared Allen. Ndondo-Lay has the size to play defensive tackle and the speed to play defensive end. He's had a ton of reps this spring with defensive end Hank Ekpe out with a virus and defensive tackle Shoobee Timms out with a hamstring injury.
"He is a high-motor guy; he plays hard," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said of Ndondo-Lay. "When you have his size and you play hard, it gives you an opportunity. And if he continues to develop like he has, he will give us a chance to rotate our front four like we’ve wanted to.
"He’s played a little bit of defensive end, and he’s played some defensive tackle. So he really could help us in either place, if we got into a jam. So he’ll have a role on the team by the time we get to the fall."
Drew Wolitarsky quickly emerged as a go-to receiver for the Gophers last fall as a true freshman, and his growth continues to show this spring.
Wolitarsky made two impressive plays in Tuesday's practice, turning one pass from Mitch Leidner on a slant pattern into a long gain. Moments later, the 6-3 Wolitarsky made a diving catch. He added another diving catch Thursday on a pass from Conor Rhoda, giving that unit a key third-down conversion.
At moments like that, you're reminded that Wolitarsky is California's all-time high school leader in career receptions (281) and receiving yardage (5,148).
"Drew’s had a great spring so far," Coach Jerry Kill said. "You don’t realize he’s 225 pounds and a very storng kid. As you play as a freshman, it’s a learning curve, but you build some confidence up, and he’s a really, really good football player."
Note: The Gophers will hold Spring Practice No. 8 on Saturday at 11:20 a.m., in the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. All spring practices are open to the public.
Chip Scoggins came to practice Tuesday, and I promised him he’d see something electrifying from Berkley Edwards. I was convinced Edwards was good for at least one of these moments per day after watching the first five spring practices.
Alas, Edwards didn’t break a long one this time, but Rodrick Williams burst through the line at one point and darted for the sideline on a long run. Slowed by a turf toe injury last fall, he’s definitely running better this spring and looks like he’s on a mission.
On March 8, the 5-11, 235-pound Williams ran right over linebacker Cody Poock on a run, then shouted at the defense, “Give me somebody who wants to hit!”
On the next play, Williams had an excellent block in pass protection and drew immediate praise from Coach Jerry Kill. Blocking was a real weakness for Williams in 2012 as a freshman, so he’s come a long way.
“Competition makes everybody get after it, that’s for sure,” Kill said, noting that the battle for playing time is especially fierce at running back.
David Cobb is coming off a 1,200-yard season. Edwards -- while only 5-9, 190 pounds -- looks like something entirely new and dynamic for the offense. And Donnell Kirkwood is running much better after spraining his ankle in last year’s season opener. Don’t forget: Kirkwood led this team with 926 rushing yards just two seasons ago.
And then there’s incoming freshman Jeff Jones – the program’s highest rated recruit in ages.
Cobb and Kirkwood are seniors this fall, but between Edwards, Jones and Williams, the team’s running game appears to be in good hands for the foreseeable future.
Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner went through it. So did Chris Streveler. It’s not easy being a Big Ten quarterback in spring practice, when you could still be getting ready for your high school prom.
Dimonic Roden-McKinzy is the latest Gophers quarterback to graduate from high school a semester early and enroll at the University in January instead of September.
I promised myself I wouldn’t overanalyze Roden-McKinzy this spring after hearing Nelson and Leidner talk about how lost they felt their first spring, and after watching Streveler look pretty lost last spring. All of these guys are bright kids. But there is so much to learn.
The first thing you notice about Roden-McKinzy is his height. The Kansas City native is listed at 6-foot, but I think that’s giving him an inch. He looks about five inches shorter than the 6-4 Leidner. Of course, Johnny Manziel wasn’t quite 6-foot either, and he was a pretty decent college quarterback.
In the passing drills, Roden-McKinzy has shown a nice touch. Leidner’s passes seem to have more zip, but Roden-McKinzy can get it there, too. The arm action is free and easy. I’m slipping back into baseball analysis here, but that was always a good sign with pitchers when they had “easy cheese,” good velocity without maximum effort.
Roden-McKinzy also looks like he’ll be plenty nimble as a dual-threat quarterback. I think passing is his strength, but he’ll be able to pull it down and run, too. He's listed at 214 pounds, so he's plenty sturdy. The Gophers have done a little 11-on-11 stuff, but it'll be tough to get a full read on Roden-McKinzy's abilities until they start scrimmaging after spring break.
“He’s really coming along,” Streveler said. “I think he’s doing better than I did my first spring. And I told him that. I think he’s just picking it up a little faster than I did and throwing well. I think everyone’s happy with how he’s doing.”
Streveler has come a long way since last spring, so if I had to bet, I’d say he’ll be the No. 2 quarterback, with Conor Rhoda at No. 3. Rhoda has impressed me, too, and this should allow the Gophers to redshirt Roden-McKinzy and incoming Roseville recruit Jacques Perra.
“I feel good about the quarterbacks play in general, I really do,” Coach Jerry Kill said after the team’s fourth spring practice. “Every one of them has made a mistake here and there, but not like in the past. They’re making good decisions.”
Note: The Gophers will hold Spring Practice No. 5 on Thursday at 4 p.m. They aren't scheduled to practice again until March 25. All spring practices are open to the public.
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