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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Northwestern's new football facility will push Gophers even further behind

Posted by: Joe Christensen under College football, TCF Bank Stadium Updated: March 14, 2014 - 10:46 AM

The Gophers just fell another step behind in college football's arms race. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Northwestern has received the green light to build "the multipurpose lakefront facility that football coach Pat Fitzgerald says will be a 'game-changer' for his program."

From the story:

Donations have poured in despite the Wildcats' 5-7 record last season. Sources said construction of the two-building complex will begin by early 2015 and should take about two years to complete.

The school will announce Friday, the Tribune has learned, that it is launching a new fundraising campaign and that Mark and Kimbra Walter have donated $40 million to be used for athletics and law school scholarships. Mark Walter, a graduate of NU's law school, is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

NU officials have been tight-lipped since unveiling plans for the project in September 2012. The price tag for the facility on the shore of Lake Michigan is likely to exceed the original estimate of $220 million.

This project was first announced in September 2012, but there are new renderings, and quite frankly, they are stunning. The Chicago Tribune reports that the cost likely will exceed the original $220 million estimate.

Last July, Gophers AD Norwood Teague unveiled a $190 million plan to drastically upgrade the school's athletic facilities, including new practice facilities for the football and basketball teams. Teague has since said that the school is close to announcing the results of a fundraising feasibility study, and he keeps saying he feels good about it. But it's been relatively quiet.

ESPN commentator Dan Dakich, a former Bowling Green coach and interim head coach at Indiana, said on Thursday’s broadcast of the Gophers-Penn State game that Minnesota can’t afford not to build a facility. Dakich called Minnesota high school basketball the nation’s best-kept secret, and said there “are Minnesota kids all over Division I.’’ Dakich said if Minnesota finally builds a practice facility comparable to other Big Ten schools and starts keeping top in-state kids at home, the basketball program could take off.

Last December, the Big Ten Network's Gerry DiNardo held nothing back in his assessment of Minnesota's football facilities. Here's an excerpt from that story:

DiNardo tours the entire Big Ten twice each year — during spring practice and preseason camp — giving him a firsthand look at what the Gophers have compared with their competition.

“You can make a case that they’re 12th of 12 [teams] when it comes to resources in the conference,” DiNardo said. “Facilitieswise, it’s not even close.”

By that, DiNardo means the indoor practice facility, weight room and nutrition areas. He said it’s nice for Minnesota fans to have 5-year-old TCF Bank Stadium but notes that players spend about 10 days per year there, counting spring practice. They spend almost every other day on campus in the training facilities, and those aren’t helping recruiting, DiNardo said.

“A prospect wants to know where he’s going to go every day,” DiNardo said. “Training table, for example: I often see at Minnesota they eat in the hallway, and it’s food with Bunsen burners underneath.”

The Gophers do indeed hold their training table with catered meals inside the entryway to the Gibson/Nagurski Practice Facility. It’s a high-ceilinged room filled with Gophers memorabilia — a nice place to visit, but hardly a dining room.

“When [recruits] go to Nebraska, by way of example, when you walk into their training table, it looks like a restaurant,” DiNardo said. “I mean, it is decked out. Wisconsin just built brand new facilities. They have juice bars — it’s a kitchen, it’s a restaurant.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Fitzgerald had this to say on National Signing Day:

"A lot of other universities have made the decision just to do the stadium. We've put the priority on student-athletes with a 365-day facility. We already have everything we need to win, but now we'll be able to compete facility-wise with anyone in the country."

Newest Gophers quarterback has made a good first impression

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gopher quarterbacks, Gophers spring football Updated: March 13, 2014 - 10:48 AM

Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner went through it. So did Chris Streveler. It’s not easy being a Big Ten quarterback in spring practice, when you could still be getting ready for your high school prom.

Dimonic Roden-McKinzy is the latest Gophers quarterback to graduate from high school a semester early and enroll at the University in January instead of September.

I promised myself I wouldn’t overanalyze Roden-McKinzy this spring after hearing Nelson and Leidner talk about how lost they felt their first spring, and after watching Streveler look pretty lost last spring. All of these guys are bright kids. But there is so much to learn.

The first thing you notice about Roden-McKinzy is his height. The Kansas City native is listed at 6-foot, but I think that’s giving him an inch. He looks about five inches shorter than the 6-4 Leidner. Of course, Johnny Manziel wasn’t quite 6-foot either, and he was a pretty decent college quarterback.

In the passing drills, Roden-McKinzy has shown a nice touch. Leidner’s passes seem to have more zip, but Roden-McKinzy can get it there, too. The arm action is free and easy. I’m slipping back into baseball analysis here, but that was always a good sign with pitchers when they had “easy cheese,” good velocity without maximum effort.

Roden-McKinzy also looks like he’ll be plenty nimble as a dual-threat quarterback. I think passing is his strength, but he’ll be able to pull it down and run, too. He's listed at 214 pounds, so he's plenty sturdy. The Gophers have done a little 11-on-11 stuff, but it'll be tough to get a full read on Roden-McKinzy's abilities until they start scrimmaging after spring break.

“He’s really coming along,” Streveler said. “I think he’s doing better than I did my first spring. And I told him that. I think he’s just picking it up a little faster than I did and throwing well. I think everyone’s happy with how he’s doing.”

Streveler has come a long way since last spring, so if I had to bet, I’d say he’ll be the No. 2 quarterback, with Conor Rhoda at No. 3. Rhoda has impressed me, too, and this should allow the Gophers to redshirt Roden-McKinzy and incoming Roseville recruit Jacques Perra.

“I feel good about the quarterbacks play in general, I really do,” Coach Jerry Kill said after the team’s fourth spring practice. “Every one of them has made a mistake here and there, but not like in the past. They’re making good decisions.”

Note: The Gophers will hold Spring Practice No. 5 on Thursday at 4 p.m. They aren't scheduled to practice again until March 25. All spring practices are open to the public.

A blast from Jerry Kill's past: Former Webb City QB visits Gophers practice

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gopher coaches, Gophers spring football Updated: March 8, 2014 - 4:23 PM

Before Jerry Kill had Jordan Lynch and Mitch Leidner, he had Mark Smith.

The lineage of Kill’s strong running quarterbacks really stretches back to his first head coaching job, at Webb City (Mo.) High School.

Smith was in eighth grade and didn’t even play football when Kill arrived as Webb City’s new coach in 1988.

“I thought I was heading to the NBA,” Smith said Saturday, after watching a Gophers spring practice. “Coach Kill talked to me, and he told me I was going to play quarterback, and I was like, OK.”

Webb City had a decent football program, good enough to win a conference title here and there but never a state championship.

“Coach Kill got to town, and he went to all the schools and wanted any male student to at least come and listen to him talk about the program,” Smith said. “I remember thinking, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’

“He looks like he did then, only he had a little bit thicker hair and glasses. But he came in there, he had the chubby old finger sticking up there, telling everybody how great football was going to be. He said, ‘Just give them the opportunity, people will get so excited, they’ll be throwing babies in the aisle.’”

In the fall of 1988, Smith played linebacker as a freshman under Kill as Webb City went 11-1. The next year, Smith played quarterback, and the team went 14-0, winning Missouri’s 4A State Championship.

There’s a fantastic highlight video from that season, featuring an interview with Kill, who sounded the same as he does now, talking behind those huge glasses. Smith looked like a man among boys, even as a sophomore.

Kill left the following year to become the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh (Kan.) State. Smith eventually went to Arkansas, where he played four years and became an All-SEC linebacker. He also played two seasons with the Chiefs.

These days, Smith still lives in Southwest Missouri and works as a regional insulin salesman for Norvo Nordisk.

“I mean 25 years later, I still remember [Kill’s coaching],” Smith said. “He talked about the mental aspect of the game, being able to handle adversity. That’s a blue-collar town anyway. The kids were all close, and he just kind of tied it all together and told us to go.

“It was one of those deals that kids are looking for a leader, and for some unknown reason Coach Kill showed up in Webb City.”

For Smith’s 40th birthday, his wife surprised him with a trip to go visit Jerry and Rebecca Kill in Minnesota. Smith is staying at their house this weekend.

“It’s the best present I’ve ever gotten,” Smith said. “It’s been 25 years, and he’s a head coach at a Division I school. My wife calls him up, and he opens up his home to me,” Smith said. “That tells you what kind of person he is.”

Mike Sherels officially promoted to Gophers linebacker coach

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gopher coaches Updated: March 7, 2014 - 1:46 PM

Mike Sherels has officially been promoted to Gophers linebacker coach. The team made it official Friday with a press release touting Sherels' rise from walk-on player to two-time captain to graduate assistant and now full-time coach.

Sherels replaces Bill Miller, who left to become the linebackers coach at Florida State.

"I am very happy for Mike,” Coach Jerry Kill said in the press release. "He has been with us for the last three years and knows and understands what we are trying to do here. He is a former two-time Gopher captain and truly loves Minnesota. This really is a dream come true for him.

“Mike is a terrific on-field coach and is a relatable presence to today's players. I cannot wait to see him recruit, as nobody can tell our story better than him. I expect his transition to be a smooth one and am excited to see him embrace his new role."

A Rochester native, Sherels made 30 starts at linebacker for the Gophers between 2003 and 2007, recording 219 tackles.

“I am extremely thankful to Coach Kill and the rest of the staff for having the belief in me to handle this job,” Sherels said in the press release. "It is a dream come true to coach at my alma mater and to represent my home state.”

Note: The Gophers will hold their third spring practice on Saturday at 11:20 a.m. They were originally scheduled to practice Sunday, as well, but they announced today that they have moved that practice to a later date, to be determined.

Gophers could have two true freshmen playing this fall on the defensive line

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gopher recruiting, Gophers spring football Updated: March 7, 2014 - 10:23 AM

Gophers coaches have dropped big hints in recent days that at least two defensive linemen could play this fall – as true freshmen.

The Gophers need to replace two defensive tackles – potential first-round draft pick Ra’Shede Hageman and Roland Johnson, who was a key reserve.

Senior Cameron Botticelli is back as a starter, and junior Scott Ekpe should slide in next to him. The Gophers like to rotate at least four defensive tackles, so depth is critical. Sophomore Yoshoub Timms will see more playing time once his hamstring injury heals, and redshirt Demarius Peppers is progressing, too.

But the Gophers also have two defensive tackles coming this summer in Steven Richardson, from Chicago Mt. Carmel, and Gary Moore from Mobile, Ala.

“I’m going to tell you straight up that Roland and Ra’Shede -- pound for pound -- were our strongest people in the middle, and replacing them isn’t going to be easy,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said last week. “But at the same time, you’ve got two kids in there who took just as many reps and played awfully well and just didn’t get the publicity in Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe.

“They will hold us up in the middle fine, and we’re going to have to rely on Shoobee Timms and Steven Richardson and Gary Moore and some of those kids to give us the depth in there. We redshirted Demarius Peppers, and I feel good about where that’s at.

“So there’s going to be some names in there that people haven’t heard of, and they’re going to be younger, but I feel like we cannot lose ground up front.”

Richardson is listed at just 6-foot tall, but he was 285 pounds, and the Gophers were ecstatic to get him. On National Signing Day, Coach Jerry Kill compared Richardson to Pittsburgh’s All-American Aaron Donald.

“Steve can run 4.7,” Kill said, of the scouting report he received from Mt. Carmel coach Frank Lenti. “And again, I’m going to believe it because he was at Mt. Carmel, and the last player I got out of Mt. Carmel – Jordan Lynch.

“Frank doesn’t tell you this is a guy unless he’s the guy, and this kid benches something like 400 pounds and runs 4.7.”

Moore also had some impressive measurables coming out of Murphy High School in Mobile, Ala. He’s 6-4, 285 pounds yet can reportedly squat 680 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds.

The Gophers also have two defensive ends coming this fall in Owatonna’s Aaron Stelter, and Julien Kafo, from the Montreal area.

“We’re bringing in four freshmen defensive linemen, and I think two of them will play, maybe three,” Kill said Thursday. “They’re talented. They’re all ready. One of them benches 400-something pounds, runs a 4.7, so I mean that’s going to create depth.”

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