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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Gophers tight end Lincoln Plsek hails from West, Texas, the small community 20 minutes north of Waco, where a massive explosion at a fertilization plant toppled nearby houses Wednesday night.
Plsek’s mother, Jennifer, said Thursday that no immediate family members were injured in the blast. The Plsek’s live on the south side of town, less than two miles from the fertilization plant.
Update: Lincoln Plsek spoke to reporters after practice today and said a distant relative was killed in the blast.
"I was shocked," Plsek said. "I didn’t think anything like that could happen. When something like that happens, you don’t expect it to be in your hometown, especially a town of 2,600 people, and it was just a shocking feeling. My heart goes out to the families and everyone who lost lives and was injured."
(Explosion site: AP photo)
“We were at home, kind of relaxing,” Jennifer Plsek said. “We’d heard reports that there were supposed to be storms. All of a sudden, we heard a real loud boom. We heard our house shake and we saw this large cloud of smoke, like you see on TV, those nuclear bomb-shaped clouds.”
She said Lincoln had trouble reaching the family at first because the cell phones weren’t working, but she was able to tell him they were safe within an hour.
“Our family has been very blessed in all of this,” Jennifer Plsek said. But she has seen images of the destruction on the north side of town. “I’m kind of at a loss for words,” she added.
“Being so far away makes it ten times worse,” Lincoln Plsek said on his Twitter feed (@LincPlsek).
The Gophers did pretty well on the health front through the first two weeks of spring practice, but that hasn’t been the case of late.
Running back James Gillum injured a knee in Friday’s scrimmage and might be done for the spring, Coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday.
The offensive line is banged up. Ed Olson (ankle surgery) and Zach Mottla (broken leg) have missed the whole spring, Jonah Pirsig has been out with a knee injury since April 6, Brian Bobek has missed the past four practices because of illness, and Jon Christenson is playing through a sprained ankle suffered in Friday’s scrimmage.
“The big thing is we hopefully get everybody back for the fall,” Kill said. “The way it looks we will, but those things are starting to pile up as the spring goes. So we’ve gotta be careful, but we’ve still gotta get better.”
The Gophers have four practices remaining before their April 27 spring game.
I sat down with Gophers AD Norwood Teague this morning to get his thoughts on the football program with spring practice in full swing. Teague has been understandably busy of late, replacing men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith with Richard Pitino.
Asked what that move signifies for the football program, Teague said, “I think it shows we have high expectations, but when I look at football, I don’t know if anybody on this Earth has higher expectations for himself or his program than Jerry Kill. I mean, he is relentless. So the basketball change was difficult, but I think something had to happen. But with football, I mean, let me tell you something: Jerry Kill runs 100 miles per hour every day, and he has high expectations for himself, no doubt.”
Asked to describe his vision for a successful football program, Teague said it’s a team that’s “in the upper half of the league and competing for championships, and one that there’s an incredible amount of hope each year for our success and people seeing improvement. Not only the way the program is managed, but seeing improvement in recruiting and also -- this is very big for football -- seeing improvement in player development, and also your retention."
Asked how excited he is for this fall, knowing Kill’s track record for success in Year 3, Teague said: “I’m real excited, but I think we’ve all got to be careful about putting a number on how many games we think we should win to see progress. Building a football program is an art. And as long as I’m excited about what I see, which is what I am excited about -- his management of the program, his building of the program, doing all the right things behind the scenes, recruiting really well, developing our kids and making retention a big priority -- then we’re growing.”
Kill’s recruiting classes at Minnesota have ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten, but Teague said, “That does not cause me any pause. I follow recruiting quite a bit, and ... football kids develop. They grow. A lot of football is growing into your body. And I am so confident and so impressed with Jerry’s group and how they evaluate. They trust their own judgment and I think that’s tremendous.”
Pitino’s contract allows him to spend up to $50,000 per year on a private jet for recruiting. Will Kill have access to a private plane now, too?
“Yeah, we’ll do that for Jerry moving forward,” Teague said. “It won’t necessarily be in his contract, but when appropriate, we’ll use those planes. They provide a lot of logistical benefits more than any type of luxury. To get our coaches from one point to another quickly, to see multiple recruits in one day and get them back for practice is invaluable.”
Mitch Leidner completed nine of 11 passes with one touchdown and ran for another score Friday night at the Bierman indoor practice facility, highlighting the Gophers first scrimmage of the spring.
Leidner, a redshirt freshman, had an easier time moving the second-team offense down the field than sophomore Philip Nelson did moving the first team. Nelson eventually found his groove, completing five of nine passes, setting up two touchdowns and a field goal.
“What I liked about them both is they were composed,” Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “You could tell they both had been there. They did some good things, missed a couple go routes and little things, but I saw a lot of leadership, driving the team.”
Kirkwood watches other running backs get tested
Donnell Kirkwood, who led the Gophers with 958 rushing yards last year, watched from the sideline, as the coaching staff gave a long look at their other running backs, especially David Cobb and Rodrick Williams.
Cobb drew six consecutive carries as the first-team offense went three-and-out on its first two possessions. He later broke a 40-yard touchdown run, only to have it called back with a penalty, and eventually scored on a two-yard TD plunge.
Williams had a fumble recovered by linebacker Damien Wilson but later had carries of 17 and 25 yards. James Gillum also had carries of 15 and 11 yards.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of what Donnell’s going to do ... so it was a good opportunity to up the reps of all the other guys and start trying to cull that herd a little bit,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
Another adventurous night for Gophers centers
The Gophers needed three centers to get through last season, and Friday was more of the same.
Junior center Brian Bobek missed all three practices this week after catching a flu bug that’s been going around the team. That thrust third-string center Ernie Heifort into duty with the second team, and he drew Coach Jerry Kill’s wrath after some erratic snaps to Leidner.
Jon Christenson, who has been playing center with the first-team offense, suffered an ankle injury on the first drive but didn’t miss a series. He got the ankle taped and was right back on the field.
“Jon’s a great kid,” Limegrover said. “I mean you’re going to literally have to cut a limb off for him not to come back out on the field. That’s something we’re working on as a team is toughness -- not just physical toughness but mental toughness. We don’t want them to be stupid. But at the same time, 'Can I fight through this? Is it pain or is it an injury?'”
* Third-string quarterback Chris Streveler played one series and got sacked twice by Alex Keith.
* Derrick Engel had at least three receptions, Isaac Fruechte had at least two receptions, and KJ Maye had at least two receptions. Leidner made a nice play-action play on his 10-yard TD pass to Victor Keise. Jamel Harbison also ran for a 15-yard reverse.
* Kicker Chris Hawthorne booted a 28-yard field goal.
* The Gophers next practice is Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., and the annual Spring Game is April 27.
With several recruits coming to campus, the Gophers had pegged Spring Practice No. 9 for TCF Bank Stadium, hoping to enjoy some Friday Night Lights. The weather will keep them inside the Bierman facility -- for the ninth consecutive practice -- but it’ll still be a chance to scrimmage in full pads with full contact.
Thursday’s session was lighter, with just helmets, jerseys and shorts. The coaches wanted the players to save their energy the way they would the day before a regular season game.
“We’ve been hit by the flu bug pretty bad,” Coach Jerry Kill said. “We had seven or eight players that didn’t participate today. ... I’ve told them that, 'Hey, this is like the third game in the Big Ten season, and this is where we’ve struggled. We’ve gotta be able to overcome that.’ So I’ve challenged them like that, ‘[Friday] night, hey you’ve gotta get over that.’”
The Gophers had several chances to play outside last spring, but with six practices left before the April 27 spring game, it’s uncertain how many times they’ll get outside this year. Kill said the team has still been able to accomplish everything it's needed to indoors.
“The thing you can control is getting your players better,” Kill said. “You’ve gotta understand where I’ve been. We’d be shoveling snow at the two previous places [Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois], and we’d be practicing anyway, outside. We have a facility to work in, so we get our work in.
“You don’t complain about what you don’t have. You use what you have and get your kids better, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
All of the Gophers spring practices are open to the public. Last Saturday, the Gophers had people ringing the field, with numerous high school coaches in town for the state coaches clinic.
"It was a Texas Tech-type situation," Kill said. "Our kids -- we had to make sure we settled some of them down. It was an intense practice. This place was packed, and the kids got after each other, really played physical, and when you left, you said, "Hmmm, this is pretty good.' And we got out of it pretty healthy."
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