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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With players finally in pads on Tuesday, the Gophers could do some hitting. It changed the atmosphere inside the fieldhouse, added a level of intensity that had been missing. It even seemed to infect the coaches, who were even more aggressive in pointing out mistakes than before.
Example: Jerry Kill blew his whistle and absolutely sledgehammered DeLeon Eskridge at one point for twitching before one snap. "THAT'S A PENALTY!" Kill screamed. Eskridge seemed to get the message.
Credit Michael Carter with the exclamation point on a hard-hitting day. The junior cornerback -- released from Kill's purgatory after three practices filled with nothing but exhausting punishments -- unloaded a week's worth of frustration on freshman Marcus Jones, who had caught a pass right in front of him. Jones bounced right up, but it looked painful.
None of the quarterbacks looked especially sharp, but that's no surprise. Surely it takes a few days to get used to all the bodies flying around. MarQueis Gray was alternately overthrowing and underthrowing receivers, and said afterward he was unhappy with his adjustment to the higher intensity. "It wasn't a good practice. I have to be better Thursday," he said. "I have to work more with my receivers. Once the timing comes, I should make more of those throws."
Moses Alipate connected with Da'Jon McKnight on a long pass at one point, but Alipate's next throw was intercepted. That kind of day.
Coaches always love pitting their linemen against each other, because the one-on-one battles fire everyone up. Kill seemed particularly animated during Tuesday's "board drill," and there were some interesting matchups. Mike Rallis vs. Eric Lair was an epic struggle, because you could see how much it meant to both of them. I'd call it a draw, and it would probably still be going on if the coaches had let it.
One interesting aspect to that, as pointed out by offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover: The defense was put in some matchups that looked like mismatches.
"Coach [Billy] Miller wanted to get his linebackers some work against the linemen. He didn't want to limit them to just tight ends," Limegrover said. "He's old-school -- challenge them right away. Make them work."
A couple other notes from Day 4:
-- Except for a short session of kicking and punting, the practice stayed indoors because the outdoor field is still recovering from the snow that has covered it all winter. The remaining snow has been plowed off the field, but all the frost underneath it makes the turf lumpy and uneven. A day or two in the sun should smooth it out, and the Gophers plan to move everything outside on Thursday. Same goes for TCF Bank Stadium -- an inch of snow remains on the field, and the daily melt-then-freeze cycle has turned some of it to ice. If it's not gone by Thursday, the university plans to scrape it off so the team can practice in the stadium on Saturday.
-- With Carter practicing again, there were no players wearing "Minnesota Lopher" jerseys. Linebacker Gary Tinsley, bothered by a sprained ankle, worked on upper body drills during practice.
-- One of the strangest and most dangerous-looking drills is the punt-blocking practice, in which walk-on kickers Jordan Wettstein and David Schwerman take a snap, then take their sweet time getting off a punt, so it can be blocked. One after another, the punters endure these loud collisions as they extend their legs.
Is this as awful as it looks? Wettstein's body language said he doesn't enjoy it, but he insisted he's happy to do whatever he's asked.
"You're part of the team, so you do what you've gotta do," said Wettstein, a junior from De Pere, Wis., just south of Green Bay. "You go into it hoping you don't get hurt, but if you take a couple of nicks and bruises, you get up and do it again. The coaches train the guys how to block them so we don't get hurt."
Yeah, but that doesn't mean he doesn't. Wettstein was nailed twice on Saturday, and the result was a pair of deep bone bruises, he said, that required two days of treatment just so he could get blocked again and again on Tuesday. Tough way to earn a spot on the team.
-- Lots of mixing and matching going on with the lineups -- Limegrover calls his first team "the pseudo-ones" -- so it's difficult to tell who is making the biggest impressions. The first-team defensive line today included Cameron Botticelli, Brandon Kirksey, Ben Perry and Leston Simpson much of the time, with Keanon Cooper, Brendan Beal and Mike Rallis at linebacker and Kyle Henderson, Troy Stoudermire, Christyn Lewis and James Manuel in the backfield.
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