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 football program announced the team's preseason practice schedule Monday night. The first practice of preseason camp is Saturday. The first seven practices at the Gibson-Nagurski Complex and an ensuing scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium are open to the public. Here are the times, dates and policies from a press release sent by the athletic department:
August 2, 12 p.m. – Pre-Camp News Conference, Gibson-Nagurski Team Room
August 4, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #1, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
August 5, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #2, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
August 6, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #3, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
August 7, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #4, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
August 8, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #5, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
August 9, 9:10 a.m./4:40 p.m. – Practice #6/#7, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
August 10, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #8 (Scrimmage), TCF Bank Stadium, Open to Public/Media
August 11, 9:10 a.m./4:40 p.m. – Practice #9/#10, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 12, No Practice
August 13, 9:10 a.m./4:40 p.m. – Practice #11/#12, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 14, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #13, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 15, 9:10 a.m./4:40 p.m. – Practice #14/#15, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 16, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #16 (Scrimmage), TCF Bank Stadium, No Availability
August 17, 9:10 a.m./4:40 p.m. – Practice #17/#18, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 18, 8:07 p.m. – Practice #19 (Scrimmage), TCF Bank Stadium, No Availability
August 19, No Practice
August 20, No Practice
August 21, 9:10 a.m./4:40 p.m. – Practice #20/#21, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 22, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #22, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 23, 10:25 a.m. – Practice #23, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, First 20 Minutes Open to Media
August 24, No Practice
Media availability for August 25 and beyond will be announced at a later date
August 25, 3:40 p.m. – Practice #24, Gibson-Nagurski Complex
August 26, 3:40 p.m. – Practice #25, Gibson-Nagurski Complex
August 27, 3:40 p.m. – Practice #26, Gibson-Nagurski Complex
August 28, 3:40 p.m. – Practice #27, Gibson-Nagurski Complex
August 29, Travel to Las Vegas
August 30, 8 p.m. – Game at UNLV
A few quick notes from the Gophers football spring game Saturday, which signals the end of the spring practice season for Minnesota:
*Quarterbacks: MarQueis Gray looked sharp on most of his passes, completing 4-of-8 passes for 62 yards while competing for the Maroon team, which technically took home a 3-0 victory over the Gold team in the 50-minute scrimmage. The crispest offensive play of the day might have been Gray's early 35-yard hookup with Brandon Green. ... Sophomore Max Shortell was 4-for-10 for 68 yards and ran for 30 more. He directed an impressive late drive that ended with a missed field goal. ... Freshmen Philip Nelson (0-for-6) and Mitch Leidner (0-for-2) did not complete a pass. The passing game overall often looked disjointed, though it's not entirely surprising.
Said coach Jerry Kill: "We divided up our receivers evenly. ... Today, there was a ball, an inch, a foot, two feet here or there, and we didn't make a play. But I think that can all get corrected through repetition in the summer."
*Kill was impressed by the team's speed in the secondary and singled out junior college transfer Martez Shabazz, who had a pass breakup and two tackles. "We've got some guys in the secondary who can run, and we're a little bigger in the secondary," Kill said.
*JoJuan Harper led all running backs with 44 yards on the ground. Donnell Kirkwood had 25 and sophomore Cole Banham had 24 on eight carries.
*The Gophers made just one of three field goal attempts, but Kill chalked much of that up to rotating in less experienced holders.
*The announced crowd was 3,512. The weather was overcast at the 11 a.m. kickoff and light rain developed late.
The Gophers' first spring practice is one week away, giving coach Jerry Kill and his staff a chance to get their first look at a half-dozen new players who are already enrolled at Minnesota. But just as exciting for offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover is the opportunity to begin sorting through all the returning offensive linemen who will be competing for starting jobs.
The first of 15 practices is at 3:30 p.m. next Thursday at the Gibson-Nagurski football complex. Like last year, all spring practices are open to the public, culminating in the April 21 spring game in TCF Bank Stadium.
Mostly due to injuries, Minnesota used 12 different players for significant stretches along the line last season, "probably twice as many as I've ever played before," Limegrover said. "We've always been pretty constant with our lineup, so that was new even for me. All that shuffling -- it was tough last year, but now we reap the benefits of all that experience."
Of those dozen linemen, 10 return this year. Yet even with all the playing time the Gophers' various linemen received last year, they remain perhaps the most inexperienced line in the Big Ten. There are no seniors in the group of 18 linemen (counting those who will join the team in the fall), and Ed Olson and Zach Mottla are the lone juniors. While Limegrover expects certain players to step forward, he said every position is open, to a greater extent than he's ever seen.
"I don't mean this in a bad way, but there's no one who's indispensable in this group," Limegrover said. "It wouldn't be like, 'Oh my God, this guy got hurt.' We've got a lot of guys coming along really well."
He expects Jimmy Gjere, who started five games last year, to return from a concussion that cost him most of last season.
In addition to sorting out who will play, Limegrover intends to figure out where they'll play. Expect plenty of shuffling of positions this spring, he said, citing now-graduated Chris Bunders' ability to play three positions last season.
One of those changes is Zac Epping's tryout at center, after finishing the season as the Gophers' starting right guard. And redshirt freshman Foster Bush will start out at right tackle, "but I'm not going to waste his time if we're [deep] there. We'll get him down at guard and let him go."
Along those same lines, Josh Campion, who practiced at guard last year while redshirting, "looks a little bit better out in space," Limegrover said, and will will get practice time at tackle. Meanwhile, former defensive lineman Sean Ferguson "seems better when he can get on somebody quick inside. So we're going to flip those two and see how things go," Limegrover said. "Fergie's big (6-foot-6 and 300 pouns), but he can move really well. Sometimes you pigeonhole guys, you look at them and go, 'Oh, he's a tackle.' But that may not be where his talents lie. He may be a better guard, and that's what we're going to find out. That's why I love the spring."
When Jerry Kill took over at Southern Illinois a decade ago, he decided for the long-term health of the program to ignore his instinct to play his best players. Anyone who could redshirt did so, and the result was a 1-10 season -- and a brighter future.
He's chosen a different path at Minnesota, though, mostly because the Gophers don't have enough depth on the roster to compete without help from the freshmen. So Saturday's parade of youngsters was more than an audition for the bench -- it was a preview of what fans will see this season.
Is there any doubt after Saturday that David Cobb will get some carries this season? Or that Marcus Jones will be one of MarQueis Gray's frequent targets? Max Shortell and Tom Parish rotated backup series at quarterback during Saturday's scrimmage, but Shortell looks like Gray's No. 2.
The commitment to youth will make the Gophers unpredictable this year, but Kill sounds ready to live with it. Speaking of Cobb, for instance, the coach said "He still makes freshman mistakes, but we've got one senior tailback (Duane Bennett) and the rest are all freshmen. So they're all going to make mistakes."
A few observations from the last preseason public look at the Gophers:
-- I didn't mention the defense in my Star Tribune story, but the linebackers in particular had a big day, despite the absence of Mike Rallis, sidelined by the flu. Brendon Beal charged into the backfield for a sack at one point, and Keanon Cooper had a sack and a bunch of tackles. Safety Kim Royston made a crunching tackle of Da'Jon McKnight.
-- Max Shortell and MarQueis Gray each fumbled, or at least bobbled, snaps early on, and a feeling of "here we go again" was evident. But the sloppy play was reversed quickly, and I didn't see another one the rest of the day. Fewer penalties, too, as Kill pointed out. There was a delay-of-game penalty, however, something I'm guessing we don't see much of this year.
-- Lamonte Edwards seems to have listened to his coaches' urging to be a more physical back, rather than try to emulate Duane Bennett's elusive style. He had an impressive touchdown from the 1-yard line, getting hit at the line of scrimmage and then powering through for the score.
-- Kill was on his offensive line most of the day, constantly complaining about their technique or sloppiness. Afterwards, though, he reiterated how tired the squad is right now. "That means he cares. If he's not on your back, you probably should worry," said senior guard Chris Bunders. "The more coaching we get, the better we get."
-- Hard not to enjoy the manic way Kill coaches; on one play, an eight-yard gain by Cobb, Kill shouted at safety James Manuel, "You've got to make that tackle, James! You've got to! ... Nice run, Cobb!"
-- Shortell improved as the day went on, but near the end, he was given the ball on his own 30 during the two-minute drill and told, "You've got to score." He almost connected on a 30-yard pass to Logan Hutton, but the ball was dropped. Then he was sacked by Ben Perry, and threw a pair of incompletions, the fourth-down pass overthrown. Chalk it up to a good learning moment.
-- Gary Tinsley fought his way through the line to block a punt, but Dan Orseske followed on the next snap with a 60-yard punt.
-- Tom Parish had a nice 15-yard scramble for a first down, but a couple of plays later earned Kill's wrath. "You don't even know the down and distance!" an appalled Kill yelled.
-- The Gophers simulated overtime for a couple of series, and each ended with a missed field goal: a 39-yard miss by Jordan Wettstein, and a 33-yarder by Chris Hawthorne, both wide left.
-- Da'Jon McKnight's ability to grab a jump ball over a cornerback is going to come in handy this season.
Just when the Gophers appeared to be putting their injury problems behind them, freshman Drew Goodger had to go create a new one.
OK, it wasn't the freshman tight end's fault, just a good football play. But Goodger's block of cornerback Derrick Wells was such a crunching hit, it brought a few audible gasps from the fans who witnessed it. Wells was helped off and was diagnosed with bruised ribs.
The rest of the injury news was mostly positive, though.
Ryan Orton was sufficiently recovered from a concussion to return to his left guard spot Thursday, and cornerback Troy Stoudermire practiced, albeit with limited contact, as he recovers from a similar injury.
Tight end Eric Lair was also wearing a limited-contact jersey as he recovers from a groin injury, but coach Jerry Kill said Lair was healthy enough to play if there had been a game. Center Ryan Wynn likely won't participate in Saturday's scrimmage, but should return from a sprained left ankle early next week.
But receiver A.J. Barker and running back Donnell Kirkwood will need more time to come back from hamstring injuries, Kill said. Barker tried to convince Kill that he's healthy enough to practice, but the coach said he intends to be careful with those injuries.
"When you've got hamstring [injuries], those can linger," Kill said. "He can do some things, but to go full tilt and have him tear a hamstring -- we're not deep enough. [Kirkwood] knows enough right now. Do we wish he was getting reps? Yes, but we're still a long ways out."
It was a fairly uneventful practice, with the quarterbacks being hounded by plenty of pressure defense; Kill said they blitzed MarQueis Gray 13 or 14 straight times at one point, and Ben Perry got through for at least one sack. Linebacker Patrick Sveum had an opportunistic interception of a Tom Parish pass, and safety Kim Royston picked off a couple of passes.
Though he knew it was coming, it couldn't have been easy for quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski to watch his players learn the hard way. "Give him a chance! Give him a chance! Give him a chance!" he shouted at backup Max Shortell after a couple of passes were overthrown.
And when Gray became over-reliant on finding receivers across the middle, Zebrowski fumed at him, "Stop killing people in there! Go outside!"
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