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.
The Gophers begin workouts for the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Friday, and will spread the 15 sessions out over three weeks until the Dec. 28 Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Max Shortell won't be taking part. Instead, he will spend the semester break, once final exams are finished, touring schools that invite him for unofficial visits, a list that the Shortells are optimistic about. The 20-year-old sophomore couldn't inquire about possible destinations until receiving his release from the Gophers, but he has studied schools that run offenses that better fit his 6-foot-6 frame and pocket-passer arm.
"There are some pro-style offenses there," said his father, Tom Shortell, "and there are people who know Max would be a good fit."
That's as opposed to the Gophers' zone-read offense, which frequently calls for the quarterback to tuck the ball away and scramble downfield. While his son is "sneaky fast," Shortell said, "they like to run a shorter, more mobile style of quarterback."
The quarterback's experience at such a young age -- 15 games played, five starts, 53.5 completion percentage, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions as a freshman and sophomore -- should earn him a scholarship somewhere.
Shortell preferred to remain vague about potential matches, saying his son expects to hear from recruiters now that the Gophers have announced his departure.
But he did say that the family has reason to believe that a handful of Midwestern teams, and perhaps a few in the SEC, might be interested.
So consider this paragraph to be mere reporter's speculation, nothing more. But the coach who originally talked Shortell into coming to Minnesota is at an SEC school. Former Gophers coach Tim Brewster, who spotted Shortell at Bishop Miege High in suburban Kansas City, now coaches wide receivers at Mississippi State, where Tyler Russell has quarterbacked the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record and berth in the Gator Bowl. Russell, a tall, accurate pocket passer like Shortell, will be a senior next season; Shortell must sit out the 2013 season under rules governing NCAA transfers. Hmm.
Wherever Shortell ends up, his father wanted one point to be made very clear. Max Shortell threw three of the passes that A.J. Barker carried into the end zone this season, but that connection didn't extend to their departures from Minnesota.
"I just want people to know, Max absolutely loved it there. The city, the university, the people there, his teammates, his coaches -- he had a great experience," Shortell said. "Our whole family loved it up there. We got to know some of the other parents, too. ... We're sad about the decision, but we're going to support whatever Max wants to do."
Barker also announced his intention to transfer recently, but ignited a controversy over Kill's coaching methods by writing a 4,000-word blog post that lambasted the coach for yelling at him in front of his teammates, among other things.
The Shortells' opinions are different, Tom Shortell said.
"Coach (Jerry) Kill is a great guy, and he was always very supportive of Max," Shortell said. '"He tried to talk Max out of transferring. I know Max really wishes it had worked out there."
Gophers sophomore QB Max Shortell will transfer, the school announced Tuesday. He will not be with the team during its upcoming Meineke Car Care Bowl game, a team spokesman said.
“Max is an outstanding young man, and I respect and understand his decision to transfer,” head coach Jerry Kill said in a statement. “I will help him in any way I can and wish him all the best as he continues his education and football career elsewhere.”
Shortell, from Shawnee Mission, Kan., made starts in both of his seasons with the Gophers, including a three-game run against Syracuse, Iowa and Northwestern this season during which Minnesota went 1-2. But the Gophers turned to true freshman Philip Nelson midway through the year, and he started the final six regular-season games.
For his career, Shortell is 91 of 170 for 1,162 yards. It is unknown where Shortell will play next season.
This season is full of new experiences for Philip Nelson, and he absorbed a couple of unhappy ones Saturday at Nebraska.
First, he spent two hours being harassed by a defense that kept him guessing with blitzes and wouldn't allow his receivers to get any separation -- "The space for fitting passes in to our receivers was smaller than for any other game, that's for sure," Nelson said -- and it caused him to resort to some bad form.
He had to throw off his back foot several times, which is at least part of the reason for his 8-for-23 passing day, with two interceptions. "With them bringing a lot of pressure, as a quarterback, you've got to be able to feel it," the freshman quarterback said. "We work on pocket throws (in practice), being able to be uncomfortable in the pocket and still make an accurate throw. I've got to be able to do that."
He also occasionally has to accept that it's time to retreat. Nelson, who hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since the first quarter against Michigan, three games agao, was relieved as the quarterback by backup Max Shortell with 9:35 remaining in the game and the Gophers trailing, 38-0. Working against Cornhusker reserves, Shortell led the Gophers on their longest drive of the day, a 58-yard march that ended with a MarQueis Gray touchdown from 1 yard out.
The decision was an easy one, Limegrover said, especially since the Gophers have watched Shortell and Gray get injured while quarterbacking this season. It's too easy to imagine a broken leg or a mangled knee.
"That was just a matter of, hey, let's make sure we keep him healthy and upright. So he was OK with it," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. He expected Nelson to be disappointed, but quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, stationed on the sidelines to work with Nelson during the game, delivered the news, which made it easier to take, Limegrover said. "It definitely helps having Coach Z right there, because he's got a great relationship with him," Limegrover said. "He talked to Philip, said, 'There's a lot of football to play, we've got a game next week, let's get Max some work."
Nelson said he was indeed chagrined by the decision, but "I support our coaches," he said. "It's a disappointing feeling, and you're frustrated with the outcome of the game. But you just learn from it and move on."
Chip Scoggins wrote a nice column this week about the admirable way MarQueis Gray has handled the end of his quarterbacking dream, how he has remained a leader and a role model even though he's not calling the signals anymore.
I was reminded of that while chatting with Gray this week. It's not hard to see one important reason why he doesn't sit around and pout about his injury and his position switch: Football isn't the only thing in his life.
Gray, now 23 and a potential NFL prospect, was enthused to talk about the Gophers' bowl eligibility, and characteristically mentioned that he's most happy for the freshmen, because the experience will help the program get better once he's gone. "The new guys coming in, it's great for them to know what going to a bowl game feels like, so they have that taste in their mouth for years to come," Gray said. "They can go again."
He also talked about the importance of not losing whatever momentum the Gophers have gained from winning two of their last three games, and not thinking that they can coast now that their No. 1 goal for the season has been accomplished. "I would like to hope that nobody on our team has that mentality," the senior from Indianapolis said. "The mentality that's going around in the locker room is, we're trying to win out. The more games we win, the better bowl we go to. Anything is possible in college football, especially in the Big Ten."
But Gray really lit up when he talked about the real highlight of last weekend. Not the 17-3 victory over Illinois, but the birthday party he and his fiancee threw for his 1-year-old twin sons, MarShawn and MarZell.
"We went to Chuck E. Cheese. They sat in their little high chairs, watched Chuck E. for a liittle bit, saw all the lights," he said. "We had a couple of friends come play with them, so they had a good time."
Sounded like he did, too. Especially because -- talk about a revelation -- he likes the food there. "It's the best pizza," Gray said. "I love their pizza."
Gopher football and his family life will intersect once more next month -- or so he hopes. Once the Gophers accept a bowl invitation, they are allowed to schedule 15 additional practices in December. Which would be great, except Gray and his longtime girlfriend Alley Behr are planning to get married in four weeks -- on 12/12/12. (The symmetry matches their sons' birthdate of 11/11/11.)
So what if practice conflicts with the wedding? Has he worked that out yet with Coach Jerry Kill?
"I don't know. I have no idea," Gray said. "Hopefully something can be done."
What about it, Coach? Does he have your blessing?
"He hasn't said anything to me about it yet," Kill said with smile. "He's probably scared to."
Joel Sambrusky, the quarterback who helped Jerry Kill turn Southern Illinois from a perennial loser to a FCS playoff fixture, seemed to enjoy talking about his conversation with Philip Nelson over the weekend. And I was particularly interested in his description of the SIU program when he (and Kill) arrived in 2001.
"It had been so long since (SIU) had had any success, the prevailing culture around the program was anything but positive. I mean, it used to be a point of pride with people that there were more people at the tailgate than at the games," Sambrusky said of the once-notorious party school. "To most people, SIU football was barely a sport. We were on life support as a program, with crummy facilities and little interest."
It wasn't easy being a football player at such a school, he said. "You'd walk around and professors would make snide remarks about the football team. People in the dorms made fun of us. Everywhere you go, there's this prevailing culture of negativity," he recalled. "It was so hard to not let that negativity permeate the program. We never read the papers, because we didn't want to know what people were saying. We tried to block out the noise, block out all the critics who said we would never win."
Hmm. Any of this sound familiar?
The need for an entire culture change is why Kill frequently compares his challenge here with the task he faced in Carbondale. And it's why Sambrusky still sounds, a decade later, as though he can't believe it happened.
"For us (football players) to walk around, ignore all that, and believe in this crazy, bald-headed coach," Sambrusky said, "it was pretty amazing."
The bald-headed guy was Kill, and he led the Salukis to records of 4-8, then 10-2, 10-2 and 9-4 during Sambrusky's tenure at SIU. That track record is why Kill introduced Nelson to Sambrusky after the Gophers' victory in Champaign.
"He went through some of the same things -- the offensive line had been beat up and so forth," Kill said. "So there was some continuity there. (Sambrusky told him), hang in there, keep your guys going in the right direction."
Nelson said the quarterbacks shared their similar experiences. "He says 'Coach Kill is going to get after you in practice,' and he told me I'll understand it some day -- how he turns into your father again (afterward), and he loves you. We all know that," Nelson said. "It was just about trusting in Coach Kill and the process."
And not letting the day-to-day grind of producing that progress distract you from the goal.
"Granted, Philip Nelson has to do it in the Big Ten. Philip has to do it in a major media market. And he's just a freshman," Sambrusky said. "When I (started), veteran guys were sitting there saying, 'Oh we've head this before. Just another guy saying thing will change.' And (Kill) won them over. ... I told (Nelson) not to believe any of the negativity. Because when you get through this process, man, it's the greatest feeling I've ever had. Nothing comes close."
Gopher fans may remember how easily Nebraska I-back Rex Burkhead seemed to slice through the Minnesota defense last season, gaining 117 yards on 23 carries. Burkhead's senior year has been an injury-filled disappointment, and this article in the Omaha World-Herald it sounds as though he's not particularly likely to play this weekend in the Cornhuskers' home finale, not with the Big Ten championship game and a bowl game still to come.
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