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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The Gophers landed a big recruit after Saturday's spring game, when Mayer Lutheran offensive lineman Sam Schlueter picked Minnesota over Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Schlueter had narrowed his list down to those three schools, keeping the suspense going, but he wound up staying with his home-state school. Rivals.com ranks the 6-6, 275-pound junior as the 41st best offensive tackle in the Class of 2016.
He was a big priority for the Gophers staff, and he joins four other in-state recruits already committed for 2016: Eden Prairie linebacker Carter Coughlin, East Ridge defensive tackle Jojo Garcia, Robbinsdale Cooper athlete Phillip Howard and Robbinsdale Armstrong linebacker Thomas Barber.
Schlueter posted the news on Twitter:
I'm back in the press box at TCF Bank Stadium, getting ready for the Gophers' annual spring game on a glorious spring day in Minneapolis. This reminds me of two years ago, when the weather had been cold and dreary until the day of the spring game, and an announced 8,400 people came out to watch.
We'll see what the crowd is like today. And it'll be interesting to see how the coaches dole out playing time. Last year, the first-team defense got the day off, as the last thing the coaches want is a key injury at the end of spring camp.
But I think the coaches will want another good look at the no-huddle offense, similar to what they did the previous two Saturdays in scrimmages here at the stadium. In today's paper, I wrote about how the no-huddle could help quarterback Mitch Leidner. I previewed the spring game here and noted three new players to watch:
Jeff Jones: The highly touted recruit from Minneapolis Washburn has been turning heads all spring, working as a slot receiver.
Rodney Smith: The coaches compare his vision to David Cobb’s, and the redshirt freshman should get a lot of carries Saturday.
Isaiah Gentry: The 6-4 Cincinnati Moeller graduate has the speed and skill to become a deep-play threat.
I also think this is a big day for QB Chris Streveler, RB Berkley Edwards, S Daletavious McGhee and several other backups who will get a chance to show what they can do. The coaches were bummed out when third-string QB Jacques Perra injured a thumb earlier in the week, preventing him from playing today.
When the injury first happened, the Gophers couldn't help but wonder if offensive lineman Jon Christenson would ever play football again. On Nov. 2, 2013, the Minnetonka native broke both the tibia and fibula in his left leg at Indiana.
Christenson had a long steel rod inserted into middle of his left leg -- and somehow managed to return to play 12 games last season. He played mostly on special teams, but started at right guard in the Citrus Bowl. In February, he finally had the rod removed from his leg.
Heading into his senior season, he's "rod free," as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. Christenson isn't practicing this spring as he rehabs the leg, but the Gophers are counting on him as a potential starter at either center or guard for this fall. He has made 16 career starts, switching between guard and center.
"He’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever coached," Limegrover said. "He will do whatever he needs to, to be ready to go, and he’s also a fifth-year guy. So I’m not worried about him not playing. And the big thing is, I want him feeling healthy and feeling good. He never felt healthy a single day [last] fall. He still came every day and gave everything he had.
"I think he’s one of the toughest guys I know. What he tried to do and what he did every day with that rod in his leg -- I mean, he’s got to feel like a million bucks, the fact he doesn’t have it in there."
It'll be interesting to see how things shake out in August. The first-team offensive line this spring has been LT Ben Lauer, LG Joe Bjorklund, C Brian Bobek, RG Josh Campion and RT Jonah Pirsig. The coaches have been very pleased with Bobek, but Connor Mayes has had a hard time snapping the ball as the second-team center.
Mayes, who played guard last year as a true freshman, could be the starting center in 2016 after Christenson and Bobek leave. So it makes sense that the coaches want to give Mayes lots of practice snapping the ball this spring. The starting center this fall could be the 6-2, 297-pound Bobek, the 6-5, 320-pound Mayes, or the 6-4, 296-pound Christenson. And the starting left guard could be the 6-5, 296-pound Bjorklund, Christenson or Mayes. Other candidates include the 6-2, 310-pound Isaac Hayes and the 6-4, 311-pound Tyler Moore.
Limegrover said those decisions will play out over time.
"I tell them every day that they better get up every day knowing there’s someone waiting to take their job," Limegrover said. "And if they don’t put the work in, when they put their head on the pillow, someone’s going to catch them. There’s a lot of competition in there."
The Gophers have several players injured heading into Saturday's spring game. The good news is that none of these injuries should affect these players this fall, but it's going to limit some development late in spring camp. Based on what I've gathered, here's an unofficial injury report:
QUESTIONABLE FOR SPRING GAME
QB Jacques Perra: Suffered what sounds to be a sprained right thumb in Tuesday's practice and is questionable for the spring game. That's a bummer for the Gophers because Perra likely would have had a chance to showcase what he can do Saturday.
DT Gary Moore: He broke a bone in his right hand during Tuesday's practice. Don't be surprised if he gets a cast and plays Saturday.
G Tyler Moore: He was being evaluated for a potential broken hand Wednesday. Again, I wouldn't be surprised if he still plays Saturday. The true freshman has already established himself this spring with his toughness and tenacity.
LB De’Niro Laster: He dislocated a finger last Saturday and is questionable for the spring game.
WR Desmond Gant: He has missed several practices with concussion symptoms. No word on whether he'll be able to return this week.
OUT FOR SPRING GAME
TE Brandon Lingen: Broken collarbone. This was another bummer for the Gophers, as Lingen's development this spring was going to be key for a team trying to replace Maxx Williams.
OL Jon Christenson: Rehabbing left leg after having a rod removed in February.
LB Nick Rallis: Rehabbing from an ACL injury.
DT Scott Ekpe: Rehabbing from an ACL injury. Was in pads for the first time this spring Tuesday.
OL Alex Mayes: After suffering a shoulder injury last year, Mayes has been dealing with a foot injury this spring.
WR Isaiah Gentry: He was back at full speed Tuesday after missing two practices with hamstring tightness. The spring game could be a good showcase for him.
RB Berkley Edwards: Kill has been very pleased with how Edwards has played since missing the first two weeks of spring practice with a hamstring injury.
TE Noah Scarver: A breakout player early in camp, he suffered a shoulder injury but has returned to practice.
TE Duke Anyanwu: The coaching staff marvels at how well he's doing after tearing his ACL last August.
In the spirit of Opening Day, let's draw a quick analogy between the Gophers football team and the Twins.
Both fan bases have been hearing about help on the horizon. With the Twins, it's Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, etc. These are some of the most promising prospects in baseball, but they're still in the minors, so who knows how good they'll eventually be?
With the Gophers, it's the trio of redshirt freshmen receivers: Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr., and Desmond Gant. All three certainly look promising. Gentry is 6-4, 205 pounds. Holland is 6-3, 196. Gant is 6-3, 214.
All three have made plays this spring. Gentry has that extra gear, so to speak. Holland might be the most polished. Gant is a little more raw, but you can see the upside. With the spring game coming this Saturday, fans have been looking forward to seeing this trio.
But Gentry missed the past two practices with hamstring tightness, and Gant has been out with concussion symptoms. It's unclear how much, if any, they'll be able to do in the spring game.
So it's worth remembering the other returning receivers. KJ Maye (16 Rec, 298 yds) is back for his senior year and clearly a leader now. Drew Wolitarsky (10 Rec, 106 Yds), a junior, is back to full health after missing four games last November with a sprained ankle.
Then there's Eric Carter. The 5-11, 189-pound Florida native managed just one catch last season as a redshirt freshman, but he's taken a step in his development this spring.
"He’s done a nice job, he really has," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "He’s improved a bunch, probably as much as anybody."
The Gophers are using Jeff Jones as a slot receiver in addition to tailback. Add it up, and there should be plenty of intriguing receiving options to watch at the spring game.
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