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.
Heading into Thursday's opener against UNLV, It’s hard for me to know how good this Gophers team is. I’m struck by how confident the players and coaches are in the direction they’re heading, but I realize that’s a common theme for any team in August.
One thing I’ll say is this team should be a compelling team to follow. The individual stories continue to surprise me. If there’s a general theme, it seems to be a group of underdogs who’ve worked tirelessly – on and off the field -- to get to this point, overcoming whatever obstacles stood in their way. Here’s a sampling:
The head coach, Jerry Kill, has overcome cancer and epilepsy, winning 136 games in 19 seasons.
The offensive coordinator, Matt Limegrover, had gastric bypass surgery in May 2012 and has dropped from 403 pounds to about 235, while completely changing the way he eats.
The team's top NFL prospect, Ra'Shede Hageman, went through 12 foster homes before being adopted by a Minneapolis couple, who helped mold him into the man he is today, as Amelia Rayno explains here.
One starting safety, Cedric Thompson, grew up in Compton and escaped the gang violence by moving to a surreal place on the Salton Sea called Bombay Beach, where he used to wake up each morning for a two-hour bus ride to school.
The other starting safety, Brock Vereen, has a brother in the NFL. Growing up, their parents had a rule that they couldn’t play football until they were finished with their homework.
One of their tight ends, Maxx Williams, is the son of two former Gophers athletes, which only begins to explain his athletic bloodlines.
The starting center, Jon Christenson, is a former walk-on who plans to become a doctor someday, which would just add him to the long list of doctors in his family. He’s also the grandson of a best-selling author.
Starting defensive tackle, Cameron Botticelli, is a former walk-on who plans to pursue a law degree.
Another former walk-on, linebacker Aaron Hill, has emerged as one of the team's defensive leaders.
One starting defensive end, Theiren Cockran, was the third most decorated member of his high school defensive line.
The starting middle linebacker, Damien Wilson, came to the Gophers from Jones County (Miss.) Community College, where he played for former NFL head coach Ray Perkins.
The top returning rusher, Donnell Kirkwood, is the son of a welder who built sleds out of steel pipe for the whole Delray Beach, Fla., neighborhood, helping those kids improve their speed.
They all have interesting backgrounds, so it'll be fun to see how well they come together as a team.
Less than two weeks now, until the start of spring practice (March 26), let’s take a look at another returning starter on defense:
Position: Defensive lineman
Eligibility: Redshirt junior
High School: Milwaukee Marquette
Recruiting flashback: Botticelli was an All-State linebacker who helped lead Marquette University High School to a 2009 state championship. He was listed as a two-star recruit by Rivals.com, and walked-on with the Gophers.
Early college: He redshirted in 2010 and played in all 12 games in 2011, recording six tackles.
2012 rewind: Botticelli’s emergence was notable last spring, when defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys explained the appeal of having nimble 280-pound defensive tackles, especially with so many offenses moving to the spread. Botticelli started all 13 games at defensive tackle, playing next to Ra’Shede Hageman, and finished with 21 tackles.
2013 outlook: Outgoing senior D.L. Wilhite called Botticelli the “unsung hero of the defensive line. I know there are times I make a play just because he’s in his gap, doing his thing, keeping people occupied.” Now, along with Hageman and fellow returning starter Michael Amaefula, Botticelli will work to keep the D-line a strength of this team moving forward.
The Gophers football team is starting it season-ticket renewals today, and this web page plays off the charged atmosphere at the Syracuse game last fall.
I was in Detroit covering the Twins that weekend but watched parts of the Gophers’ 17-10 win in a sports bar. People tell me it was the kind of night that reminds people what’s possible at TCF Bank Stadium.
When spring practice opens March 26, the Gophers will be without offensive linemen Ed Olson (ankle surgery) and Zach Mottla (broken leg). But the coaching staff is still excited about the depth of the O-line. Brian Bobek, Jonah Pirsig, Isaac Hayes and among those who'll get a chance to show what they can do.
And here’s a look at one of the linemen who played a key role last year:
Position: Offensive lineman
Eligibility: Redshirt junior
High School: Kenosha (Wis.) Tremper
Recruiting flashback: Listed as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com, Epping had an offer from Jerry Kill’s staff at Northern Illinois, but committed to Tim Brewster and the Gophers. Epping was a Wisconsin All-State selection as a senior and actually was a standout defensive player in high school.
Early college: He redshirted in 2010 and played in all 12 games in 2011, starting eight.
2012 rewind: Epping and Josh Campion were the Gophers' only offensive linemen to start all 13 games. Epping moved from left guard to center, when the Gophers had to turn to their third option there after injuries to Zach Mottla and Jon Christenson.
2013 outlook: Epping’s intensity showed in the bowl game when he took back-to-back personal foul penalties. His versatility showed when he willingly moved to center, with his team in a pinch. And his accountability showed when he owned his mistakes with the media after two fumbled snaps against Northwestern. Throw in his durability, and the Gophers are glad to have him around for the next two seasons.
I'll be back at Ridder Arena tonight to see if the Gophers women's hockey team can extend its 44-game winning streak, as they play Ohio State in the semifinals of the WCHA Final Face-Off.
Meanwhile, with 18 days remaining until spring practice, let's take a look at another returning member of the Gophers' receiving corps:
Position: Wide Receiver
Eligibility: Redshirt junior
High School: Caledonia
Recruiting flashback: Fruechte (pronounced Freck-te) was a standout receiver for Caledonia but didn’t receive any D-I offers out of high school.
Early college: He landed at Rochester Community and Technical College, where he caught 30 passes for 800 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman in 2010. Fruechte sat out the 2011 season and transferred to Minnesota in time for spring practice last year.
2012 rewind: Fruechte is deceptively fast and started making his mark in spring practice. While other receivers higher on the depth chart fell off the grid, he started nine of the team’s last 11 games and finished with 19 catches for 256 yards and two touchdowns. His production did trail off over the final three games, however, as he combined for just one catch for four yards against Nebraska, Michigan State and Texas Tech.
2013 outlook: Of Minnesota’s returning receivers, only Derrick Engel had more yards (375) last season. Fruechte still has two years of eligibility remaining and will look to build off 2012. Jamel Harbison should be back from his knee injury, but Andre McDonald will miss spring practice while working through some personal issues. Fruechte will get more chances to show what he can do at the Division I level.
I started this player capsule series determined to find some of the best stories on the Gophers roster. Here's another good one:
Position: Wide Receiver
Eligibility: Fifth-year senior
High School: Chaska
Recruiting flashback: Engel was an honorable mention All-State selection at Chaska and had preferred walk-on offers at Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Rivals.com listed him as a two-star recruit.
Early college: He picked Winona State, where he made an immediate impact as a freshman. As a sophomore in 2010, he was an All-NSIC selection. He transferred to Minnesota and sat out the 2011 season, under NCAA rules.
2012 rewind: Engel started just one game (at Nebraska) but played in 12 and finished with 18 catches for 375 yards and one touchdown. He kept climbing the ladder as the Gophers lost other receivers through attrition. Jamel Harbison tore an ACL, A.J. Barker quit and Andre McDonald was suspended from the bowl game for violating team rules. Against Texas Tech, Engel was a go-to guy for Philip Nelson, catching four passes for 108 yards. Engel also was an Academic All-Big Ten selection.
2013 outlook: Engel is the Gophers’ leading returning receiver. Granted, we’re only talking about 375 yards, but his career is a testament to determination, so it’ll be fun seeing how he finishes.
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