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.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill announced the team's preseason practice schedule today, with four sessions open to the public, including a scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium on Aug. 9. The Gophers begin practice Aug. 1 and open their season against Eastern Illinois on Aug. 28.
This is always subject to change, but here's a look at how it will unfold for the Gophers:
Aug. 1, 5:15 PM – Practice #1, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Media
Aug. 2, 10:25 AM – Practice #2, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Media
Aug. 3, 10:25 AM – Practice #3, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
Aug. 4, 5:15 PM – Practice #4, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
Aug. 5, 5:15 PM – Practice #5, Gibson-Nagurski Complex, Open to Public/Media
Aug. 6, 5:15 PM – Practice #6
Aug. 7. 5:15 PM – Practice #7
Aug. 8, 5:15 PM – Practice #8
Aug. 9, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #9/#10, Gibson-Nagurski /TCF Bank Stadium, #10 Open to Public/Media
Aug. 10 – No practice
Aug. 11, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #11/#12
Aug. 12, 10:25 AM – Practice #13
Aug. 13, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #14/#15
Aug. 14, 10:25 AM – Practice #16
Aug. 15, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #17/#18
Aug. 16, 6:07 PM – Practice #19
Aug. 17 – No practice
Aug. 18 – No practice
Aug. 19, 9:10 AM/4:40 PM – Practice #20/#21
Aug. 20, 10:25 AM – Practice #22
Aug. 21, 10:25 AM – Practice #23
Aug. 22 – No practice
Aug. 23, 3:40 PM – Practice #24
Aug. 24, 3:40 PM – Practice #25
Aug. 25, 3:40 PM – Practice #26
Aug. 26, 3:40 PM – Practice #27
Aug. 27 – No practice
Aug. 28 – Game vs. Eastern Illinois at 6 PM
The Gophers will begin practice two weeks from today feeling very good about their offensive line. Ed Olson has graduated, after splitting left-tackle duties with freshman All-American Ben Lauer, and right guard Caleb Bak had to retire because of concussion issues. But a ton of experience returns, along with some talented underclassmen.
Right now, here's my projection for the starting offensive line:
LT Ben Lauer 6-7, 315, 4 career starts
LG Zac Epping 6-2, 318, 34 career starts
C Tommy Olson 6-4, 306, 13 career starts
RG Josh Campion 6-5, 315, 26 career starts
RT Jonah Pirsig 6-9, 320, 0 career starts
Knee and wrist injuries have slowed Pirsig's development a bit, but even with a cast on his wrist during spring practice, the Blue Earth, Minn., native had clearly become a force. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who also coaches the offensive line, said in April that if Pirsig kept progressing, he could start at right tackle, with Campion moving to right guard.
Campion has started 26 consecutive games at right tackle, but there is an opening at right guard with Bak's retirement. Foster Bush [6-5, 304, 4 career starts] filled in admirably for Bak late last season, but there has been an assumption -- from outside the team anyway -- that Bush would be replaced this fall.
But in an interview this week, Limegrover kept several options open. Asked if Campion would be playing tackle or guard when practice begins Aug. 1, Limegrover said, "Yes."
"He’s been working at guard and working at tackle," Limegrover said. "Foster Bush has had a great offseason. This is the first extended period of time where he’s been healthy, been able to get in the weight room, and he’s more explosive than he’s ever been.
"And I think he’s no dummy. He’s looking around going, 'OK, this is my opportunity. I can either just be a guy or I can lay my claim.'
"[Campion] is at a point where, I don’t want to say he’s getting bored palying tackle because he can always get better. But he’s the kind of kid who loves the game. So if there’s additional time he can put in, he’s going to do it and get better at guard.
"You’ve got the young pup from Blue Earth [Pirsig], who’s hungry, who wants to do it. Jon Christenson [6-4, 298, 15 career starts] coming back [from his broken leg], doing a great job. I don’t know when he’ll be ready. I talked to him and said, 'You don’t have to be ready to win us a football game on Aug. 1. We’ll get you back there when you’re ready.' But he’s a smart kid, an experienced kid, a kid who’s worked his tail off. He’ll find a way to be a factor there.
"So a lot of those guys are doing a great job."
It says something about a player's stature with his team when he gets picked to attend the conference's media festivities. That's why it's worth noting that the Gophers will send Mitch Leidner, David Cobb and Cedric Thompson to Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, July 28-29.
That gives Minnesota three team leaders with three unique stories.
Leidner is a redshirt-sophomore and the clear starter at quarterback. (Here's a link to a profile I did on him last October, noting how the Gophers recruited him -- as a tight end.)
Cobb is heading into his senior season after rushing for 1,202 yards last year and becoming the first Gopher to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since 2006. (Here's a story on how Cobb persevered despite limited carries as a freshman and sophomore.)
And Thompson is also heading into his senior season at safety, after leading the team with 79 tackles last year. (Here's Thompson's story, which is as interesting as anything I've come across in sports.)
Here's the full list of Big Ten players heading to Chicago later this month.
The Gophers just released their first depth chart and injury report. No big surprises here on the two-deep. Chris Hawthorne has been listed as the starting kicker. All four punters are listed as possible starters. Here's the link.
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.
|Sports (4)||Football (12)|
|College football (574)||Bowl games (18)|
|Gopher coaches (107)||Gopher quarterbacks (77)|
|Gopher recruiting (71)||Gopher road games (23)|
|Gophers disciplinary action (13)||Gophers injuries (90)|
|Gophers on TV (11)||Gophers preseason practice (69)|
|Gophers recruiting (23)||Gophers spring football (76)|
|TCF Bank Stadium (10)||The Big 10 (67)|
|NCAA: football (10)||Gophers game day (112)|
|Gophers postgame (48)||NCAA (19)|
|Gophers awards and honors (32)||Gophers post season (11)|
|Gophers roster moves (22)||Coaching (45)|
|Gophers player capsules (13)|