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.
I caught up with Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover on Tuesday to get his thoughts looking ahead to spring practice, which starts March 3. Limegrover is always a good quote, so I'll be sprinkling his comments into my coverage throughout camp. For now, here are a few of the things I gleaned from the conversation:
* Limegrover plans to give Josh Campion a good look at guard this spring, knowing he could always move back to tackle. This would allow a potential starting O-line that includes the 6-7 Ben Lauer at left tackle and 6-9 Jonah Pirsig at right tackle, with the 6-5 Campion at one of the guard spots.
* But Limegrover isn't promising anything to Lauer or Pirsig. He challenged Lauer, specifically, feeling that he wasn't quite as driven as he need to be coming into last season after earning Freshman All-American honors in 2013. He knows Lauer dealt with a high ankle sprain and mono last fall but wants him to bring his A-game this spring. The same goes for Pirsig, even though he made big strides last season.
* With Tommy Olson graduated and Jon Christenson not expected to practice this spring, the center duties will primarily go to Brian Bobek and Connor Mayes. The Gophers expect Christenson to play a big role this fall, and they just want to him to focus on building strength after having a rod removed from his leg last week. Mayes and Christenson are candidates to start at center, as well as guard. Matt Leidner, Mitch's younger brother, provides depth on the center depth chart, and the Gophers might give some snaps to early enrollee Tyler Moore.
* Jerry Gibson will come to camp as a wide receiver. Someday, he might move to H-back, in the mold of Maxx Williams, but he hasn't put on enough weight for that yet. For now, Gibson is part of a talented quartet of wide receivers who redshirted last year, along with Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland.
* The two leading candidates to replace Williams at H-back are Duke Anyanwu (who tore an ACL in early August) and Nick Hart.
* The three leading candidates to replace Drew Goodger at the Y-tight end spot (more of a blocking position) are Lincoln Plsek, Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak. Lingen saw time behind Williams last year as a true freshman, but his future is at the Y-spot.
* As for replacing David Cobb, Limegrover said that will probably be a multi-person job, though he did say, "I think Rodrick [Williams] is working hard to prove that he can be a 22-25 carry, 55-65 play guy." Limegrover is also excited to see what Berkley Edwards, Rodney Smith and Jeff Jones can do this spring.
* Limegrover also can't wait to see how Mitch Leidner builds off the experience he gained as a full-time starting QB last fall. "I thought Mitch really settled down as the season went on, and I think there’s a comfort level," Limegrover said. "There’s just an air about him that’s completely different than it was last Feb. 17, just because it’s like, 'I've been through this all for a year. I’m going to be the starter. I’m going to be the guy.' There’s just a calmness to him now that I really like."
Gophers career passing leader Adam Weber is rejoining the team -- this time as a graduate assistant coach.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill hired Weber to replace outgoing graduate assistant Ryan Maiuri, who worked closely with quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, helping develop Mitch Leidner and Co.
“I really am excited to join such a great staff under Coach [Jerry] Kill,” Weber said. “I’m just looking to be a sponge. It just seems like a great fit.”
Weber started for the Gophers from 2007 to 2010, setting school records for passing attempts (1,594), completions (909), passing yards (10,917) and touchdown passes (72).
Weber, 27, had stints with the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he got cut last year after signing with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“I traveled for three months overseas and that was a great way for me to digest it all, to kind of close that chapter and then really prepare myself for that next step,” Weber said. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity to open up that door and get into coaching.”
Weber will be working toward a masters’ degree while he is coaching the Gophers. In his four years as Minnesota’s quarterback, the team had four different offensive coordinators under then-coach Tim Brewster.
“I had so many different coaches and so many different coaching styles,” Weber said. “I can take a little bit away from each and then develop into my own coach.”
Weber, a Mounds View grad, can relate to Leidner as a Minnesota-born quarterbacks handling the pressures of quarterbacking the Gophers. They’ve already forged a bond.
“As soon as Mitch took the reigns, I reached out to him to let him know, if he ever has any questions, I’m always here,” Weber said. “Now I’m excited that I can be more involved and be there on a day-to-day basis, and try to help all the quarterbacks – and the entire team.
“I’m very entry level, being a G.A. I’ll try to learn as much as I can from these guys and also be a resource when I can be.”
Jerry Kill continues to have full confidence that the University of Minnesota will be ready to break ground on its new $150 athletic facilities project in August.
“I expect [the shovel] to be in the ground during two-a-day camp,” Kill said Friday. “That’s what I’ve said all along, and I expect that to happen. … I’ve told the recruits, and so it needs to get done.”
University CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter said last week that as with any university project, at least 80 percent of the money ($120 million) must be raised before construction can begin. Athletics Director Norwood Teague said $70 million has been raised thus far.
A Board of Regents document released last week states that a complete financing plan must be ready for approval at the June 11-12 Regents meeting in order to begin construction by October.
“I think when the board finalizes it in June, they should be able to get going immediately,” Kill said. “I don’t know the 80 percent rule, 70 percent rule, 90 percent rule -- that’s their job to figure all that out. They know we need to get it started in August.”
This week, the Board of Regents approved using $15 million of the money already raised for the project’s schematic design.
“That’s tremendous,” Kill said. “Right there, that tells you. Once you do that, things move pretty fast.”
* Offensive lineman Jon Christenson had a rod inserted into his left leg when he broke his tibia and fibula in a gruesome injury in November 2013. Christenson returned last season and started the Citrus Bowl at right guard. Christenson recently had the rod removed from the leg. The Gophers plan to withhold him from spring practice, but Kill said Christenson “will be a starter” again this fall.
* Cody Poock, who tore the ACL in his right knee last March, will be at full speed for spring practice and is a candidate to replace departing senior Damien Wilson as the starting middle linebacker.
* Duke Anyanwu, who tore the ACL in his right knee early in August, also has been cleared for spring practice, Kill said. Anyanwu is one of several candidates the Gophers are counting on to help replace NFL-bound tight end Maxx Williams.
* Scott Ekpe, who tore an ACL in last year’s season opener, is also making good progress but likely will be limited during spring ball. “We know what he can do,” Kill said. “We’ll make sure he’s healed up. He may get a few reps, but we’re going to be careful there.” The Gophers need to replace Cameron Botticelli, but they expect to have Ekpe and Steven Richardson back as their starting defensive tackles.
Gophers Athletics Director Norwood Teague said Thursday that fundraising for the $150 million athletics facilities project is “way ahead of schedule,” noting that $70 million has been raised in about 10 months.
Teague gave an update before the Board of Regents Facilities and Operations Committee approved using $15 million of the money already raised for schematic design.
“I feel very good about the pace that we’re on,” Teague said after the meeting. “Our fundraising is way ahead of schedule. I am thrilled with the money we’ve brought in thus far, and I’m thrilled with the prospects of our timeline.”
Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Werle said, “We’re still hoping to break ground [by the] end of the summer. That’s our goal.”
Others have noted that fundraising for this project is going much quicker than when the Gophers were raising money to build TCF Bank Stadium.
Last week, University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said as with any project, 80 percent of the money – in this case $120 million – needs to be raised before construction can begin. The other 20 percent can be financed and paid off through continued fundraising, he explained.
“We’re going to get it done,” Regent Thomas Devine said. “We’re going to make sure that we deliver a product here.
“And I think certainly when we look at the arms race that we’re in – those of us that have traveled to the other schools in the Big Ten, and we know what’s going on in the SEC – this is an important step for the university. And the commitment’s there from this board and from the president.”
The Gophers originally unveiled this as a $190 million project in July 2013. After laying the groundwork with potential donors, the Gophers didn't begin making official asks until last summer. Teague insists the project hasn’t been scaled back – the goal is still to raise $190 million – but acknowledged there are components that will be updated after this first $150 million phase.
Those include practice facility upgrades for men and women’s golf, baseball, women’s gymnastics and wrestling, as well as renovations for the old indoor football complex, which is currently being used by eight teams. The Gophers are also looking at a new interim and long-term home for the track teams.
The $150 million phase will build a new indoor football complex, a new basketball facility, and an academic and nutrition “Excellence Center,” for all 750 Gophers athletes.
Regent Dean Johnson thanked Teague for the work he and his department have done.
“I know this has not been an easy mountain to climb,” Johnson said. “And yet, I believe on behalf of the university, and the state of Minnesota, this is much needed.
“When this issue comes up in public, one of the first things I indicate is this is done with private funds, foundation money -- no tax dollars or no tuition -- and I think it’s very important to state that for the general public.”
The Gophers football team announced Wednesday that it will start spring practice March 3 and hold its annual spring game April 11 at TCF Bank Stadium.
These are similar dates to last year, when the Gophers opened spring practice March 4 and held their spring game April 12. One year earlier, Gophers spring practice lasted from March 26-April 27.
Coach Jerry Kill cited several benefits of moving the schedule up, including the fact players would have more time to heal for fall camp in case of injury.
Michigan will open spring practice on Feb. 24 this year under Jim Harbaugh. The Gophers plan to announce their full practice schedule soon.
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