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.
MarQueis Gray is a dangerous weapon when he tucks the football and runs, but he needs to become a more efficient passer. So Minnesota football coaches, with some free time available between recruiting season and spring practice, looked around the country for examples of mobile quarterbacks who blossomed as pass-throwers as their careers went on.
Turns out, Baylor had one last season, an offensive machine that you don't have to be a football coach to have heard of. Which is how three Gopher assistant coaches came to spend a few days last week in Waco, Texas.
"We liked what they did with Robert Griffin III, with what they put on his plate," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said of the Bears' Heisman Trophy winner. "We had seen him play the year before, and he made a real nice jump from 2010 to 2011 -- I think a lot of people would like to have a year like that, wouldn't they?"
Um, yeah. Griffin had one of the great passing seasons in NCAA history, completing 72.4 percent of his passes, racking up 4,239 yards, and throwing for 37 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Not too bad.
Nobody is demanding that Gray turn into a Heisman threat, of course, not even close. But coach Jerry Kill's staff wanted some tips on drawing more production out of their senior quarterback, who outgained Griffin on the ground, 966 yards (and a 4.9-yard-per-carry average) to 699 (and a 3.9 average), but barely completed half of his passes and threw for just 1,469 yards and eight scores.
"They really did some things to help [Griffin] be successful, so we felt like that was a good thing to look at," Limegrover said. Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, receivers coach Pat Poore and offensive graduate assistant Daryl Agpalsa headed to Baylor to meet with Bears' coaches.
That's what passes for a vacation in college football, a sport where everyone is looking for the next great idea. LImegrover himself, along with running backs coach Brian Anderson, tight ends coach Rob Reeves and quality-control coach Nate Griffin, drove to Ames, Iowa, on Friday to share ideas, and once Cincinnati begins spring practice in early March, he and Kill hope to fly to Ohio to watch.
"It's a rite of spring," Limegrover said. "From a week after signing day to about mid-March, a lot of guys are on the move. We just finished up watching all of last season again with our [situational] cut-ups -- kind of figuring out, here's what we did well, here's what we didn't, here's what we need to chop, here's what we need to emphasize. You get that done, and you go, OK, maybe these people have a wrinkle we could look at."
Many times, they do. Even during a rushed transition last spring, Gopher offensive coaches found time to visit Fort Worth to learn about TCU's shotgun offense. "One of our most effective play-action [passes] last year we got from that trip in February," Limegrover said. "We had a chance to spend some time with them talking about it, tweaked it to fit our players and what we needed from it, and it really turned out to be a good protection scheme for us."
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill released the following statement Sunday afternoon on the death of former Penn State coach Joe Paterno:
“I got home last night from recruiting and my oldest daughter said she had just heard. Fifteen minutes later, my youngest daughter at Murray State called. That's two girls from a coach's family reacting to it. That really sums up his impact. It hits home. He coached for 60 yearswith more than 100 players per year. Think about how many lives he touched, how many good things he has done.
“From my family to the Paterno family, our prayers go out to them. It's a sad day for football, but a good day for the man upstairs.
“I would tell people not to forget what that guy has done. To coach for 60 years in one place, that just won't ever happen again. I didn't get to coach against him. But I got to coach in the Big Ten, sit next to him at a meeting and have my picture taken with him. That's something I will never forget.”
The new Penn State coaching staff will seem a little familiar to Minnesota football fans.
John Butler, who coached Minnesota's special teams for all four seasons of Tim Brewster's tenure with the Gophers, has been hired by new Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Butler will join former Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who was hired earlier this week.
Both Roof and Butler are coming back to the Big Ten from SEC programs. After losing his job along with the rest of Brewster's staff a year ago when Jerry Kill took over the program, Butler went to work at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier. Roof, who spent only the 2008 season at Minnesota, comes to Penn State from Auburn, where he served as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for three seasons.
A year ago today, Joel Maturi flew to DeKalb, Ill., and came home with a new Gophers coach.
"In some ways it seems like several years ago, and in some ways, it seems like yesterday," Minnesota's athletic director said of his hiring of Jerry Kill.
His weekend was much more relaxed this year. He spent Saturday in Indianapolis at the Big Ten championship game with his fellow athletic directors, no doubt enjoying the stress that his Illinois counterpart, Mike Thomas, is under at the moment, trying to choose a new head coach.
If Maturi was hiring a replacement for Tim Brewster (who, coincidentally, was also at the Big Ten title game, in his role as Fox Sports sideline reporter) this year instead of last, he might not have been able to hire Kill. Northern Illinois, where Kill coached for three seasons, on Friday finished its second straight 10-win season by winning the Mid-American Conference championship game; the Huskies are headed to their fourth straight bowl game, taking on Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile. Kill's resume would look even stronger today than it did 12 months ago.
Meanwhile, there are a couple of other openings at places where Kill might be a logical fit, potentially opening up competition for the current Gophers' coach. Ron Zook was fired after going 34-50 in seven seasons at Illinois, where Kill is well known, having been successful for a decade in the state at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.
And Turner Gill is out after going 5-19 in just two seasons at Kansas, a state where Kill's roots are deep. He grew up in Cheney, got his start as a college coach at Pittsburg State, and spent two seasons as head coach at Emporia State, each of which is with a couple of hours of Lawrence. If the Jayhawks had come calling at the same time as the Gophers, who knows whether Kill would be in Minneapolis today.
"There's no question we're a little bit lucky how everything worked out," said Maturi, who signed Kill to a seven-year contract and is confident the coach will turn around the Gophers' football fortunes. "At the same time, Minnesota has proven to be a good fit for Jerry Kill, and he's been a great fit for us."
The prospect of going home to Kansas, or taking on a Big Ten program with a little more success over the past couple of decades, plus a natural recruiting ground in Chicago -- could Minnesota have lured Kill here with that kind of competition?
"Well, that's impossible to know, and fortunately we don't have to," Maturi said. "But it's safe to say that Jerry Kill knows the upside of Minnesota now, and he sees the potential for success here. I think he's very happy with his situation."
It's been 10 years since Jerry Kill suffered through a season as unsuccessful as this one, because it's been a decade since he's taken over a program so in need of an overhaul.
And the Gophers' 2-9 season has come with some painful reminders.
"I've been able to go in and turn programs around, but I think I forgot how tough it was," Kill said Tuesday. "You get pounded by people that go, 'I don't think he can do it.' "
That's been the case here, where the optimism of a new regime and a new season quickly gave way to the reality of the task at hand. As the Gophers failed to capitalize on their non-conference schedule, losing home games to New Mexico State and North Dakota State and then appearing completely overmatched by their early Big Ten opponents, more doubters emerged.
Kill has taught himself to tune them out. But "it's not easy to do," he said.
"Thank the Lord I've trained for it and I've been through it before, because if you haven't been through it, it's pretty darned tough," the coach said. "If you've been through it, you kind of live in a bubble, which we do as a staff. We talk all the time, we keep each other going."
The doubts extended even to the players, Kill said, and he could tell that back in the spring. The most important time for a rebuilding program, he said, is the off-season, where weight-room dedication and a culture of hard work have to take hold before a team can be successful on the field.
"I said [during the spring], 'Hey, [the players] haven't bought in. We hadn't worked hard enough,' " Kill said. "All of a sudden, it's kicked in now a little bit, but it's too late. It's too late. I feel bad that I couldn't get that done earlier, but I kept saying, 'We don't know how to work.' I was hoping I could get them to buy in quicker and move faster."
He's seen progress over the past four weeks, and believes the program is moving, albeit slowly, toward a brighter future. And he reiterated that his future is with the Gophers, too -- because he's not up to yet another ground-up reconstruction. "I don't want to do it again," Kill said. "This is it. I've said that since I've been here -- it's too damn hard. It's hard to change a culture."
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