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.
It doesn't take a touchdown or interception to get Jerry Kill worked up. For the Gopher coach, there's nothing more thrilling than a simple assignment, perfectly executed.
So it seemed Saturday during a spring practice attended by at least 150 Minnesota fans, a session full of bottled-up tension. After three straight days of shorts-and-jersey workouts with high intensity, it's clear that the Gophers are eager to put on pads and do more than play touch football. Players were knocked to the ground, the pushing and shoving on the line grew more antagonistic, and there was an unmistakable edge to a few matchups.
"You've got to be careful," coach Jerry Kill said after shaking hands and swapping stories with several members of the crowd. "You start getting people on the ground, a little fatigue sets in, people get a little irritated. They don't know if they can go full speed -- it's kind of hard."
But there's still room for great plays, and Kill spotted a subtle one during a starters-vs.-starters play. Tailback Duane Bennett peeled out of the backfield, emerged at tight end Eric Lair's side, and threw himself into a defensive end.
"It's a good football play where we influence the tight end down, then take the back and pin the end and get the tight end out into the flat," Kill explained. Bennett "just did a good job," Kill said, and the coach reacted by sprinting over to the senior tailback approximately as quickly and determined as Bennett had been. "Great job, great job!" he yelled.
The Gophers' new coach has reserved judgement on most of his players so far, generally saying it's too early to tell who's going to help and who isn't. But he's already got a strong opinion about Bennett, a team captain last season.
"He's a good football players. I can tell that just from the three days I've seen him," Kill said. "He's a natural football player. You could put him on punt-block, and he'd be good. ... He's born to be a good football player."
A few other notes, now that the Gophers are already through 20 percent of their spring drills:
-- The original plan had been to go outside by Saturday, but Tuesday's snowstorm changed that idea. Three days of indoor workouts have been good, Kill said, because they have made it easier to teach the players, and they have fulfilled the NCAA requirement of three practices without pads. But the coach wants to move outside for the rest of spring drills.
"Cold doesn't bother me. ... At Northern Illinois, we practiced when it was 10 degrees. We didn't have an indoor" facility, Kill said.
One problem: The Gophers' practice field (and presumably TCF Bank Stadium) are blanketed by a few inches of snow. The Gophers aren't scheduled to practice again until Tuesday, but may have to remain inside if the snow doesn't melt away by then.
-- MarQueis Gray had his best day so far at quarterback on Saturday, his passes far more accurate, in general, than his competition, who were frequently afflicted with freshman-itis. There is little doubt about his running ability, but Gray demonstrated he can throw on the run, too. Still, that didn't prevent Kill from loudly berating the junior QB at one mistake.
-- Interceptions by Tyrone Bouie, Johnny Johnson and especially Troy Stoudermire, who seems to pick one off every day, got the crowd excited. Stoudermire is breaking quickly on the ball, as is safety James Manuel. Also notable was the lively play of linebackers Brendan Beal, Gary Tinsley and Keanon Cooper, who seemed all over the field sometimes. (I spoke to Beal and Cooper for a short story in Sunday's Star Tribune -- they love the new defensive system.)
-- Freshman tailback Devon Wright is academically ineligible, but he is attending practice while he goes to school (paying for it himself) to clear NCAA hurdles. Wright, from Coral Springs, Fla., said he is on track to be eligible again by fall camp, but that it's killing him to watch while he can't suit up. "I'm still going over the playbook, so I'll be ready. I'm watching film, staying in shape," he said. "I can't wait for August."
-- Also watching practice: Tommy Olson, one of the Gophers' top recruits in February and brother of offensive lineman Ed Olson.
-- Kill didn't kick any players out of practice, but he almost ejected a fan. As the players stretched, he rushed over to 11-year-old Ryan Tiers, who was making the mistake of wearing a Kansas Jayhawks sweatshirt, and pretended to call for security. "He told me this is Minnesota, not Kansas," Tiers said.
Kill didn't know it until he came over, but Tiers had a good reason for the shirt: He's from Clay Center, Kansas. His father, Derrick, was the college roommate of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, and was in town on business.
-- Speaking of Kill and the fans, the coach is spending time each evening writing notes to those who show up to practice. "I've always done it. I appreciate the support. It's their team," Kill said.
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