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.
Former Gophers safety Cedric Thompson didn’t get an invite to the NFL Combine, but he had a big pro day earlier this month and has drawn steady interest from teams including the Vikings and Texans.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper currently ranks Thompson as the No. 10 safety on this year's board.
“You love the way he plays,” Kiper said in a teleconference Thursday. “His game day tapes are very solid. He’s adequate in coverage. He’s a good tackler, he makes plays, and he’s another guy, very instinctive.
“So when you look at a poor safety group, that’s why I moved him in there [to the Top 10]. If this was a strong safety group, he wouldn’t be a 10. He’d be 17-18. It’s just not that type of year. Those kind of guys make it in this league, guys who can set up a defense that are consistent week to week, that understand how to play the game.
“That’s more important than physical qualifications at safety. So I would say he’s maybe an undrafted free agent or a late-Day 3 pick.”
Williams still top tight end, Cobb at No. 10 for running backs
Kiper has had had Maxx Williams ranked as the No. 1 tight end on the board. The Saints seem like a potential fit with two first-round picks after trading Jimmy Graham. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Saints draft Williams at No. 31.
Cobb injured a quad at the Combine, but has his pro day scheduled for April 13. (Updated.)
“For running backs, it’s about performance, and Cobb had a heck of a year, and he’s a 230-pound running back who’s got a lot of ability,” Kiper said. “This guy isn’t flashy. He isn’t a guy who gives you the wow type of runs, but the chains keep moving with him.”
If Thompson benefits from being part of a weaker safety crop, Cobb could have the opposite situation at running back. This is considered a very deep running back class led by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley.
“I think Cobb -- because running backs drop probably a round or two further than they should -- maybe he goes in the fourth-fifth round. But he’s going to play in this league. We forget all the third-round picks who are really good players, I think if he’s a fourth-fifth, he’s still going to be in that really good group.”
The Gophers resume spring practice today with a 4:15 session that's open to the public at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex. The team is back from spring break, and this will be practice No. 6 of 15 this spring.
Before the break, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was asked which players surprised him through the first five practices.
"There’s probably two of them that are a little bit further along," Claeys said. "I think [safety] Charlie Rogers has done a nice job, for coming in from junior college, and getting thrown into the fire.
"And the other one is Julian Huff, the young linebacker. I mean that kid loves football. He’ll get after you, so I’ve been really pleased with him. He’s got a lot to learn, but the one thing is, you don’t have to tell him to go sic ‘em. I mean, he’ll go get ‘em. So I’ve been really pleased with the way those two new kids have transitioned."
Watching the Gophers' defense at spring practice, the unit that stands out the most is still the secondary. Even with Cedric Thompson headed to the NFL, they are loaded back there and could potentially start four seniors -- Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Eric Murray, Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson -- with former Iowa State safety Charlie Rogers at the nickel.
This spring, the linebackers have made observers do a double take, too. Damien Wilson is headed to the NFL after being a mainstay in the middle, but the Gophers have more overall linebacker talent walking around the field now.
"We’ve got enough bodies [at linebacker]," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "It’s just a matter of straightening out where it’s all going to go together."
Last year, you wouldn't have heard Gophers coaches say they had "enough bodies" at linebacker. They were really concerned about the depth.
They had their three starters -- De'Vondre Campbell, Damien Wilson and Jack Lynn (pictured) -- and a bunch of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Jonathan Celestin emerged as a hard-hitting force behind Campbell. Everett Williams started the Iowa game at middle linebacker. Those two were true freshmen.
The two leading candidates to replace WIlson are Williams and Cody Poock, who is back from his ACL injury.
"He’s got some natural instincts," Claeys said of Poock. The coaches really like Williams, too. Campbell was banged up last week, but Claeys said he'll be ready to go after spring break. The Gophers resume practice March 24, leading up to the April 11 spring game.
The five linebackers expected to get the bulk of the playing time this fall, in no particular order, are: Campbell, Lynn, Poock, Celestin and Williams. De'Niro Laster and Nick Rallis (recovering from ACL surgery) and Ray Dixon and Chris Wipson and newcomer Julian Huff will be among those looking to provide depth.
"I think last year, we wore down a little bit toward the end of the year," Claeys said. "With where we were at [at linebacker], we couldn’t substitute as much as we’d like to, just giving guys a break.
"I’ve been very pleased so far [this spring]. It’ll probably take all of spring ball to figure out how that puzzle’s going to fit together. But for the first time, we’ll probably have as much depth as we’ve had at linebacker, which is a good thing."
The Gophers landed another legacy recruit Friday, when Robbinsdale Armstrong linebacker Thomas Barber announced he is committing to Minnesota.
Barber's two older brothers -- Marion III and Dom -- both played for the Gophers, as did their father, Marion Jr. The 6-1, 225-pound Thomas Barber is listed as a three-star recruit by 247Sports.com.
His commitment comes one day after the Gophers landed Carter Coughlin, a four-star linebacker from Eden Prairie who had narrowed his choices to Minnesota, Ohio State and Oregon. Coughlin is the son of former Gophers defensive lineman Bob Coughlin.
Last weekend, the Gophers hosted Coughlin and Barber on unofficial visits, along with two top offensive line recruits: Sam Schlueter from Mayer Lutheran and Matt Kegel from Chaska. Eventually, the Gophers hope to bring all four of them into the fold.
Barber made his announcement on Twitter:
Are the Gophers switching to a no-huddle offense? No. But they're definitely working on it during spring practice. So it should be on display again today for the general public, when the team practices at 4:15 at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said after Saturday's practice that that they are still in the developmental stage. The goal is to learn as much as they can during spring camp and then continue working on it during player-led workouts this summer. When August arrives, they'll see where they're at and how much they can use it. Limegrover spoke of adding an element to the offense that they can use when things are getting bogged down.
On Sunday, coach Jerry Kill explained to Sid Hartman and Mike Max on 830-AM that there are benefits to practicing this way, too. They get more reps, so you can get more done in a shorter amount of time. Players have to focus more and think on the fly.
The two players who met with the media Saturday -- tight end Duke Anyanwu and wide receiver KJ Maye -- both seemed to be embracing the no-huddle approach.
"A lot of guys like it," Anyanwu said. "A lot of guys are up to the challenge because some guys like myself who ran a true spread [offense] in high school, it’s kind of like going back to high school ball. And it’s not something that we’re doing for sure; it’s just something that coaches are experimenting with, so it’s a pretty cool experience."
The Gophers aren't using a stop watch, trying to reel off a play every 20 seconds like Oregon.
"We’re worried about lining up and actually running the right play before we can get a time limit on the play," Maye said. "It’s gotten better [in each of the first three practices], but we’re still learning. It’ll take some time."
Freshman running back Jeff Jones might have had his welcome-to-college-football moment Saturday, when he took a handoff and got absolutely de-cleated by linebacker Jonathan Celestin.
But Jones has had some impressive moments, too. He clearly has some burst in those legs and shiftiness. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, and he hasn't looked lost despite being unable to practice last fall when he was ineligible.
"Jeff Jones has done a great job," Limegrover said. "I give that kid a ton of credit. And I give our kids credit. Our guys got together with him and [offensive lineman] Tyler Moore -- some of the new guys -- and those guys did a lot of stuff before we ever hit last Tuesday. So Jeff was further along than I thought. [Fellow freshman RB] Rodney Smith having that year [to practice with the team] has been huge for him. He’s walking around like he’s a veteran now."
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