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.
Caught up with Gophers coach Jerry Kill in his office today. Some quick notes:
* Spring practice will start on March 4, with the spring game on April 12. That’s much earlier than last year, as the team waited to start until March 26 with the spring game on April 27. This year, the team will hold two weeks of camp before spring break (March 17-21) and three weeks after the break.
* Players scheduled for offseason surgery include: CB Derrick Wells (shoulder), WR KJ Maye (groin), T Jonah Pirsig (hand), TE Alex Bisch (ankle), FB Tyler Hartman (shoulder).
CB Briean-Boddy Calhoun (knee surgery) will be ready for spring practice, but the Gophers plan to be careful with him. C Jon Christenson (broken leg) is doing well with his rehab but won’t participate in spring practice. C Matt Leidner (quarterback Mitch Leidner’s younger brother) has a foot injury but should be ready for spring practice.
* Two players from the 2014 recruiting class are scheduled to begin classes this month, allowing them to compete in spring practice: LB Cody Poock (a transfer from Iowa Western Community College) and QB Dimonic McKinzy from Kansas City (Mo.) Wyandotte High School.
Tackling the quarterbacks in the spring game is strictly forbidden for the Gophers and most other teams. But that didn’t stop defensive end Theiren Cockran from toppling Mitch Leidner in the second quarter last Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
It prompted the public address announcer to say, half-jokingly, “We don’t encourage that type of behavior in the spring game.”
Agreed. No team wants to see its quarterbacks suffer a senseless injury. But the moment told me two things:
1) Cockran can get to the quarterback. The 6-6, 245-pound redshirt sophomore will be counted on to help replace outgoing senior D.L. Wilhite, who led the team with 8 1/2 sacks last year.
“You’ve gotta control your aggression sometimes,” Cockran said. “I didn’t try to hit [Leidner] too hard. I tried to avoid him at the end, but I just got him a little bit.”
What did the coaches say?
“I haven’t heard about it, but I will soon,” Cockran said after the game. Here's more on Cockran from a story I did last month.
2) Leidner can take a hit. He’s 6-4, 233 pounds. He got up and led his team into the lead with two second-half touchdown passes.
Asked what he thought of the hit, Leidner smiled and said, “I forgot about it. Obviously, just get up right away and shake it off.”
Leidner's durability could be critical. If something happens to starting quarterback Philip Nelson, the Gophers will need Leidner to lead them forward. After him, there's a big drop on the depth chart, as true freshman Chris Streveler has a lot of learning to do.
Here's more on Leidner from last month.
Jamel Harbison can’t wait for practice to start again, on Aug. 1. The Gophers receiver who started last year’s season opener as a true freshman, only to tear his ACL in the first quarter, showed how far he has come during last Saturday’s spring game.
Harbison, who was granted a medical redshirt for last year, had five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown, leading the second-team offense. Not bad consider he's only eight months removed from major knee surgery.
“Jamel’s a dangerous receiver,” Leidner said. “You want to get the ball in his hands.”
The wide receiving corps is the biggest question for the offense. Derrick Engel had five catches for 74 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, but fellow starter Isaac Fruechte managed just one catch for five yards, and Devin Crawford-Tufts was out with a leg injury.
Those are the Gophers three projected starters for this fall, but Coach Jerry Kill makes no secret that the team is looking for more playmakers. Harbison and KJ Maye (two catches, 36 yards in the spring game) are both candidates, as are incoming recruits Drew Wolitarsky and Eric Carter.
Earlier in spring camp, Harbison said his speed was about 85 percent, coming back from the knee surgery.
On Saturday? “Ninety-five percent, just because the tempo was up a little more,” he said. “Felt good cutting on it and everything. So it’s not a problem right now.”
That’s good news for Minnesota's offense.
Note: Former Gophers TE John Rabe has been invited to Vikings rookie camp.
Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith, from the Big Ten Network, watched the Gophers second-to-last spring practice Thursday, inside the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, and seemed to come away impressed.
On Twitter, DiNardo (@gerrydinardo) noted that Jerry Kill's program has looked better each time they've swung through camp, which would now be five times -- Spring 2011, Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012 and today.
"For the 14th practice they got a bunch done," DiNardo tweeted, adding "14 is usually not a productive go."
Kill was less impressed. In an 11-on-11 drill, Cedric Thompson intercepted Philip Nelson and ran for a touchdown. It was among the examples when the offense looked out of sync.
"I think we’ve had 13 good practices," Kill said. "I think today wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as clean as I’d like it. We didn’t go very long, and I think our kids have kind of hit that wall a little bit. We’ve got some guys banged up, which everybody does in spring, and we feel like we’ll get those kids back. It’s been a grind."
Next up for the Gophers is Saturday's 1 p.m., spring game at TCF Bank Stadium. They'll divide into two teams and play 15-minute quarters.
"I’m excited to get out there Saturday, be outside, a little bit different element, and finish off the spring good," Kill said. "Let those kids play and let them have some fun because we’ve been after them pretty good. Split them up and have a good time and hopefully get out of there without any major injuries."
Earlier in camp, the players did some pushing and shoving in one of the practices, and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said that's usually a sign that it's time to scrimmage. The drills can get pretty frustrating. Today was no exception, as Thompson and tight end Drew Goodger got into it, leading to a long multi-player scuffle.
"At the end of camp, everybody is tired, and everybody’s trying to push through," Thompson said. "So at times, everybody loses a screw every now and then. But at the end of the day, we’re still a family. We all shake hands in the lockerroom. We all still love each other."
If it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Big Ten would expand to eventually add more teams besides Rutgers and Maryland -- hold that thought.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The Sporting News on Tuesday that further expansion is unlikely. There had been speculation that the conference was targeting ACC schools such as North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech.
But this week, the ACC adopted a new TV rights deal that ties all 14 teams and Notre Dame into a revenue sharing agreement through 2026-2027. The deal reportedly forces ACC teams to relinquish TV revenue back to the ACC throughout the 14-year contract if they leave the conference.
Asked if that deal would cement the lineups in the five major conferences -- Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac 12 and Big 12 -- Delany told the Sporting News, "Given everything that has gone on, yes."
Rutgers and Maryland will join the Big Ten in 2014, making it a 14-team conference. In coming days Big Ten presidents and chancellors are expected to scrap the Legends and Leaders divisions and divide into East and West divisions for 2014:
East: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin.
I'm not convinced the Big Ten is finished expanding. The Rutgers and Maryland developments came out of the blue last year. It's possible, for example, the Big Ten could convince Missouri to leave the SEC, which hasn't tied teams to a long-term TV contract. There are other possibilities, too, but at the very least, the ACC deal should cool the rampant speculation for a while.
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