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.
Former Gophers quarterback Max Shortell announced Thursday night on Twitter that he is transferring to Jacksonville State in Alabama.
The 6-6 junior from suburban Kansas City originally signed with Minnesota after being recruited by Michigan. In two years with the Gophers, Shortell played 13 games, completing 91 of 170 passes (53.5 percent) with eight touchdowns.
But the strong-armed Shortell is more of a pro-style quarterback who didn't fit Minnesota's offense, which has relied on its quarterbacks to run under Coach Jerry Kill. The Gophers liked what they saw this spring from young quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner.
Shortell's decision came five months after he decided to leave the Gophers program. Jacksonville State is an FCS school in the Ohio Valley Conference that went 7-4 last season.
Shortell's tweet (@goldenarmginger) says: "I will be playing ball next at Jacksonville State University. #GoGamecocks!"
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.
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."
Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood set the tone for Saturday’s full-contact scrimmage on the second play, when he burst through a huge hole for a 46-yard gain.
It was the first of five runs for at least 20 yards in the team’s second scrimmage of the spring. David Cobb had a 38-yarder, Cole Banham had a 64-yarder and quarterback Mitch Leidner had runs that went for 21 and 24 yards.
“I was encouraged we popped some big plays because we didn’t have much of that last year,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
It was less encouraging for the defense, which made big strides overall last year but still needs work against the run.
“I don’t mind seeing a run break every now and then because then we get a tackle in the secondary,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “But at the same time, it shouldn’t get there.”
Nelson looks solid
Philip Nelson completed eight of 14 passes for 80 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown strike to Isaac Fruechte capping the first drive.
“He made some hot throws against blitzes, he kept the chains moving, he made a great touchdown throw early,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “I thought he got in a great rhythm."
Leidner had some impressive runs but finished just 1-for-5 passing on the day.
“I thought Mitch played well in the [April 12] scrimmage,” Zebrowski said. “I felt like he got more reps in some tougher situations [Saturday] and did some really good things. He still ran well ... and made some good decisions.”
* Chris Hawthorne hit field goals from 28 and 36 yards during the scrimmage. Afterward, Coach Jerry Kill invited about 300 spectators onto the field to add chaos for Hawthorne’s last two kicks, and he drilled both 42-yarders, finishing a perfect day.
* Claeys said he will limit the reps for defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, safety Brock Vereen and cornerback Derrick Wells through the April 27 spring game. The coaching staff knows their abilities and wants to be sure they are healthy heading into fall camp.
* Very cool moment at the end of practice. The crowd on the field included about 60 kids from the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota. Kill shouted encouragement to the group, telling the kids never to give up chasing their dreams. "You can do it!" Kill said. "And don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it!"
Mitch Leidner completed nine of 11 passes with one touchdown and ran for another score Friday night at the Bierman indoor practice facility, highlighting the Gophers first scrimmage of the spring.
Leidner, a redshirt freshman, had an easier time moving the second-team offense down the field than sophomore Philip Nelson did moving the first team. Nelson eventually found his groove, completing five of nine passes, setting up two touchdowns and a field goal.
“What I liked about them both is they were composed,” Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “You could tell they both had been there. They did some good things, missed a couple go routes and little things, but I saw a lot of leadership, driving the team.”
Kirkwood watches other running backs get tested
Donnell Kirkwood, who led the Gophers with 958 rushing yards last year, watched from the sideline, as the coaching staff gave a long look at their other running backs, especially David Cobb and Rodrick Williams.
Cobb drew six consecutive carries as the first-team offense went three-and-out on its first two possessions. He later broke a 40-yard touchdown run, only to have it called back with a penalty, and eventually scored on a two-yard TD plunge.
Williams had a fumble recovered by linebacker Damien Wilson but later had carries of 17 and 25 yards. James Gillum also had carries of 15 and 11 yards.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of what Donnell’s going to do ... so it was a good opportunity to up the reps of all the other guys and start trying to cull that herd a little bit,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
Another adventurous night for Gophers centers
The Gophers needed three centers to get through last season, and Friday was more of the same.
Junior center Brian Bobek missed all three practices this week after catching a flu bug that’s been going around the team. That thrust third-string center Ernie Heifort into duty with the second team, and he drew Coach Jerry Kill’s wrath after some erratic snaps to Leidner.
Jon Christenson, who has been playing center with the first-team offense, suffered an ankle injury on the first drive but didn’t miss a series. He got the ankle taped and was right back on the field.
“Jon’s a great kid,” Limegrover said. “I mean you’re going to literally have to cut a limb off for him not to come back out on the field. That’s something we’re working on as a team is toughness -- not just physical toughness but mental toughness. We don’t want them to be stupid. But at the same time, 'Can I fight through this? Is it pain or is it an injury?'”
* Third-string quarterback Chris Streveler played one series and got sacked twice by Alex Keith.
* Derrick Engel had at least three receptions, Isaac Fruechte had at least two receptions, and KJ Maye had at least two receptions. Leidner made a nice play-action play on his 10-yard TD pass to Victor Keise. Jamel Harbison also ran for a 15-yard reverse.
* Kicker Chris Hawthorne booted a 28-yard field goal.
* The Gophers next practice is Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., and the annual Spring Game is April 27.
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