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.
Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood set the tone for Saturday’s full-contact scrimmage on the second play, when he burst through a huge hole for a 46-yard gain.
It was the first of five runs for at least 20 yards in the team’s second scrimmage of the spring. David Cobb had a 38-yarder, Cole Banham had a 64-yarder and quarterback Mitch Leidner had runs that went for 21 and 24 yards.
“I was encouraged we popped some big plays because we didn’t have much of that last year,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
It was less encouraging for the defense, which made big strides overall last year but still needs work against the run.
“I don’t mind seeing a run break every now and then because then we get a tackle in the secondary,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “But at the same time, it shouldn’t get there.”
Nelson looks solid
Philip Nelson completed eight of 14 passes for 80 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown strike to Isaac Fruechte capping the first drive.
“He made some hot throws against blitzes, he kept the chains moving, he made a great touchdown throw early,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “I thought he got in a great rhythm."
Leidner had some impressive runs but finished just 1-for-5 passing on the day.
“I thought Mitch played well in the [April 12] scrimmage,” Zebrowski said. “I felt like he got more reps in some tougher situations [Saturday] and did some really good things. He still ran well ... and made some good decisions.”
* Chris Hawthorne hit field goals from 28 and 36 yards during the scrimmage. Afterward, Coach Jerry Kill invited about 300 spectators onto the field to add chaos for Hawthorne’s last two kicks, and he drilled both 42-yarders, finishing a perfect day.
* Claeys said he will limit the reps for defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, safety Brock Vereen and cornerback Derrick Wells through the April 27 spring game. The coaching staff knows their abilities and wants to be sure they are healthy heading into fall camp.
* Very cool moment at the end of practice. The crowd on the field included about 60 kids from the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota. Kill shouted encouragement to the group, telling the kids never to give up chasing their dreams. "You can do it!" Kill said. "And don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it!"
Big Ten presidents and chancellors will vote next week on a proposal to adopt new East and West football divisions for 2014, when Rutgers and Maryland join the conference, ESPN.com reported Friday night.
The proposal would scrap the current Legends and Leaders divisions and divide teams by geography.
The Gophers would be in the West, along with their two closest rivals -- Wisconsin and Iowa -- as well as Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue.
The East division would have Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers.
There has been speculation for months that the Big Ten would divide into eastern and western divisions, but the one question was whether Indiana or Purdue would be the team moving west.
By 2014, the conference will have eight schools in the Eastern time zone and six schools in the Central time zone, so one Eastern team had to flip, and under this proposal it will be Purdue.
Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez also told CBSSports.com that the Big Ten is expected to approve a nine-game conference schedule for 2016.
The Gophers football team moved Saturday's 10 a.m., practice from TCF Bank Stadium to the Gibson-Nagurski indoor complex, but they still plan to hold their second full-contact scrimmage.
Like all spring practices, it'll be open to the public.
"It'll be similar to [last] Friday night," Coach Jerry Kill said. "Maybe not as long, a little shorter, but we’ll get some crisp work and get out."
The Gophers have been stuck inside for every spring practice, but there is still hope of playing the April 27 Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers have given Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner a large majority of the snaps this spring, and it figures to be more of the same through the spring game. Third stringer Chris Streveler still has a lot to learn as an early enrollee.
"Chris is right where we need him to be right now as a kid coming in," Kill said. "He’s learning what to do and so forth. Right now, Philip and Mitch need to get as many reps as they can get. And really, Chris is like they were a year ago."
Continued injury concerns
Kill noted that 16 players did not practice Thursday. Unofficially, from my observation, that list included offensive linemen Ed Olson (ankle surgery), Zach Mottla (broken leg), Jonah Pirsig (knee-cap injury) and Brian Bobek (illness). All were there wearing orange non-participation jerseys.
Two players who'd been out -- LB Nick Rallis and CB Jeremy Baltazar -- were back in action.
But others wearing orange jerseys were WR Devin Crawford Tufts (reason uncertain) and WR Devon Wright (shoulder surgery), and I don't recall seeing DT Cameron Botticelli. RB James Gillum will miss the rest of the spring with a knee injury. CB Marcus Jones is recovering from knee surgery.
Kill didn't want to go through the entire list of everyone who was out and why, but it's clearly on his mind. Heading into the 11th spring practice, there were signs on the wall that said "10-0 PERSISTENCE."
"We’ve practiced well throughout spring," Kill said. "The coaches feel good about the players. The kids have worked hard and we’ve got a lot done and we’ve gotten better.
"I think the biggest concern right now is we had 16 guys not practice today. We’ve got flu, strep throat, you name it, we’ve had it. Nothing that’s going to keep us out until Aug. 1, but we’ve gotta let those kids heal. ... You want to get more physical, and you want to improve your football team, but you want to get as healthy as you can. We’re limited on some things we can do because of health issues, but every school has that in the spring."
Gophers tight end Lincoln Plsek hails from West, Texas, the small community 20 minutes north of Waco, where a massive explosion at a fertilization plant toppled nearby houses Wednesday night.
Plsek’s mother, Jennifer, said Thursday that no immediate family members were injured in the blast. The Plsek’s live on the south side of town, less than two miles from the fertilization plant.
Update: Lincoln Plsek spoke to reporters after practice today and said a distant relative was killed in the blast.
"I was shocked," Plsek said. "I didn’t think anything like that could happen. When something like that happens, you don’t expect it to be in your hometown, especially a town of 2,600 people, and it was just a shocking feeling. My heart goes out to the families and everyone who lost lives and was injured."
(Explosion site: AP photo)
“We were at home, kind of relaxing,” Jennifer Plsek said. “We’d heard reports that there were supposed to be storms. All of a sudden, we heard a real loud boom. We heard our house shake and we saw this large cloud of smoke, like you see on TV, those nuclear bomb-shaped clouds.”
She said Lincoln had trouble reaching the family at first because the cell phones weren’t working, but she was able to tell him they were safe within an hour.
“Our family has been very blessed in all of this,” Jennifer Plsek said. But she has seen images of the destruction on the north side of town. “I’m kind of at a loss for words,” she added.
“Being so far away makes it ten times worse,” Lincoln Plsek said on his Twitter feed (@LincPlsek).
I sat down with Gophers AD Norwood Teague this morning to get his thoughts on the football program with spring practice in full swing. Teague has been understandably busy of late, replacing men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith with Richard Pitino.
Asked what that move signifies for the football program, Teague said, “I think it shows we have high expectations, but when I look at football, I don’t know if anybody on this Earth has higher expectations for himself or his program than Jerry Kill. I mean, he is relentless. So the basketball change was difficult, but I think something had to happen. But with football, I mean, let me tell you something: Jerry Kill runs 100 miles per hour every day, and he has high expectations for himself, no doubt.”
Asked to describe his vision for a successful football program, Teague said it’s a team that’s “in the upper half of the league and competing for championships, and one that there’s an incredible amount of hope each year for our success and people seeing improvement. Not only the way the program is managed, but seeing improvement in recruiting and also -- this is very big for football -- seeing improvement in player development, and also your retention."
Asked how excited he is for this fall, knowing Kill’s track record for success in Year 3, Teague said: “I’m real excited, but I think we’ve all got to be careful about putting a number on how many games we think we should win to see progress. Building a football program is an art. And as long as I’m excited about what I see, which is what I am excited about -- his management of the program, his building of the program, doing all the right things behind the scenes, recruiting really well, developing our kids and making retention a big priority -- then we’re growing.”
Kill’s recruiting classes at Minnesota have ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten, but Teague said, “That does not cause me any pause. I follow recruiting quite a bit, and ... football kids develop. They grow. A lot of football is growing into your body. And I am so confident and so impressed with Jerry’s group and how they evaluate. They trust their own judgment and I think that’s tremendous.”
Pitino’s contract allows him to spend up to $50,000 per year on a private jet for recruiting. Will Kill have access to a private plane now, too?
“Yeah, we’ll do that for Jerry moving forward,” Teague said. “It won’t necessarily be in his contract, but when appropriate, we’ll use those planes. They provide a lot of logistical benefits more than any type of luxury. To get our coaches from one point to another quickly, to see multiple recruits in one day and get them back for practice is invaluable.”
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