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.
The Gophers announced this morning that Saturday's practice has been moved to TCF Bank Stadium, at 9:30 a.m., and is open to the public. This will be their eighth session of the spring and the first outdoors.
The Minnesota Football Coaches Association is holding its spring clinic this weekend, with about 1,400 coaches in downtown Minneapolis. Jerry Kill is among the featured speakers, and hundreds of coaches usually take in a Gophers practice while they're in town.
This should be a fun practice to watch. The Gophers usually "go live" and scrimmage on spring Saturdays.
More thoughts from Limegrover
On Thursday, Matt Limegrover gave some insight into how the battles are shaping up along the offensive line. I posted his thoughts on Josh Campion moving to guard in this report, but I wanted to update the rest of the line battles.
Remember, Jon Christenson had a rod removed from his leg and is rehabbing right now, but the Gophers expect him to be fully healthy this summer. Christenson is a likely starter at either center or left guard.
The first-team O-line this week has been Ben Lauer (left tackle), Joe Bjorklund (left guard), Brian Bobek (center), Campion (right guard) and Jonah Pirsig (right tackle).
"Ben Lauer’s going to be just fine," Limegrover said. "He’s had a real good spring ball so far at left tackle. We’ve got to find a backup [at left tackle], we’re a little bit shy right there. Our backup may not be on campus yet in all honesty.
"We’ve got to have somebody step up. If you’re not good at left tackle, you’re not going to be good as an offense. And that's what’s happening sometimes, when [second-string QB] Chris Streveler’s in there, he’s having some trouble over there."
Connor Mayes is another candidate to start at either left guard or center, but he's had a rough week snapping the ball as the second-string center.
"We’ve gotta get Connor squared away," Limegrover said. "It’s a little different snapping [without the defense lined up], but you put someone breathing down your neck, and it’s a little different scenario. So he’s got to keep working at that every day. He’s doing a nice job, but I’ll tell you who’s been real consistent throughout the spring is Brian Bobek. So I’ve been real happy with that."
A gem of a book
Finally, I wanted to throw in a plug for Kristian Pope's new book, "Godballers." Kris is a good friend of mine from our time working together at the Minnesota Daily, and he poured his heart and soul into this. It's the story of a remarkable year on the college basketball beat -- and so much more. From the Amazon link:
Godballers is the journey of a rookie sports reporter looking to make a name for himself when he quickly discovers that life at his new assignment travels in a slower gear. There he meets a coach haunted by his past and driven by his future. In this true tale of faith, the coach must overcome an unthinkable tragedy and find a cure for his son's life-threatening illness to fulfill the young man's dream of playing college basketball. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, Godballers follows every thrilling moment of the season and teaches indelible lessons in life, family and the true meaning of faith.
The Gophers resume spring practice today with a 4:15 session that's open to the public at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex. The team is back from spring break, and this will be practice No. 6 of 15 this spring.
Before the break, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was asked which players surprised him through the first five practices.
"There’s probably two of them that are a little bit further along," Claeys said. "I think [safety] Charlie Rogers has done a nice job, for coming in from junior college, and getting thrown into the fire.
"And the other one is Julian Huff, the young linebacker. I mean that kid loves football. He’ll get after you, so I’ve been really pleased with him. He’s got a lot to learn, but the one thing is, you don’t have to tell him to go sic ‘em. I mean, he’ll go get ‘em. So I’ve been really pleased with the way those two new kids have transitioned."
Watching the Gophers' defense at spring practice, the unit that stands out the most is still the secondary. Even with Cedric Thompson headed to the NFL, they are loaded back there and could potentially start four seniors -- Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Eric Murray, Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson -- with former Iowa State safety Charlie Rogers at the nickel.
This spring, the linebackers have made observers do a double take, too. Damien Wilson is headed to the NFL after being a mainstay in the middle, but the Gophers have more overall linebacker talent walking around the field now.
"We’ve got enough bodies [at linebacker]," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "It’s just a matter of straightening out where it’s all going to go together."
Last year, you wouldn't have heard Gophers coaches say they had "enough bodies" at linebacker. They were really concerned about the depth.
They had their three starters -- De'Vondre Campbell, Damien Wilson and Jack Lynn (pictured) -- and a bunch of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Jonathan Celestin emerged as a hard-hitting force behind Campbell. Everett Williams started the Iowa game at middle linebacker. Those two were true freshmen.
The two leading candidates to replace WIlson are Williams and Cody Poock, who is back from his ACL injury.
"He’s got some natural instincts," Claeys said of Poock. The coaches really like Williams, too. Campbell was banged up last week, but Claeys said he'll be ready to go after spring break. The Gophers resume practice March 24, leading up to the April 11 spring game.
The five linebackers expected to get the bulk of the playing time this fall, in no particular order, are: Campbell, Lynn, Poock, Celestin and Williams. De'Niro Laster and Nick Rallis (recovering from ACL surgery) and Ray Dixon and Chris Wipson and newcomer Julian Huff will be among those looking to provide depth.
"I think last year, we wore down a little bit toward the end of the year," Claeys said. "With where we were at [at linebacker], we couldn’t substitute as much as we’d like to, just giving guys a break.
"I’ve been very pleased so far [this spring]. It’ll probably take all of spring ball to figure out how that puzzle’s going to fit together. But for the first time, we’ll probably have as much depth as we’ve had at linebacker, which is a good thing."
Are the Gophers switching to a no-huddle offense? No. But they're definitely working on it during spring practice. So it should be on display again today for the general public, when the team practices at 4:15 at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said after Saturday's practice that that they are still in the developmental stage. The goal is to learn as much as they can during spring camp and then continue working on it during player-led workouts this summer. When August arrives, they'll see where they're at and how much they can use it. Limegrover spoke of adding an element to the offense that they can use when things are getting bogged down.
On Sunday, coach Jerry Kill explained to Sid Hartman and Mike Max on 830-AM that there are benefits to practicing this way, too. They get more reps, so you can get more done in a shorter amount of time. Players have to focus more and think on the fly.
The two players who met with the media Saturday -- tight end Duke Anyanwu and wide receiver KJ Maye -- both seemed to be embracing the no-huddle approach.
"A lot of guys like it," Anyanwu said. "A lot of guys are up to the challenge because some guys like myself who ran a true spread [offense] in high school, it’s kind of like going back to high school ball. And it’s not something that we’re doing for sure; it’s just something that coaches are experimenting with, so it’s a pretty cool experience."
The Gophers aren't using a stop watch, trying to reel off a play every 20 seconds like Oregon.
"We’re worried about lining up and actually running the right play before we can get a time limit on the play," Maye said. "It’s gotten better [in each of the first three practices], but we’re still learning. It’ll take some time."
Freshman running back Jeff Jones might have had his welcome-to-college-football moment Saturday, when he took a handoff and got absolutely de-cleated by linebacker Jonathan Celestin.
But Jones has had some impressive moments, too. He clearly has some burst in those legs and shiftiness. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, and he hasn't looked lost despite being unable to practice last fall when he was ineligible.
"Jeff Jones has done a great job," Limegrover said. "I give that kid a ton of credit. And I give our kids credit. Our guys got together with him and [offensive lineman] Tyler Moore -- some of the new guys -- and those guys did a lot of stuff before we ever hit last Tuesday. So Jeff was further along than I thought. [Fellow freshman RB] Rodney Smith having that year [to practice with the team] has been huge for him. He’s walking around like he’s a veteran now."
After the Gophers first spring practice Tuesday, coach Jerry Kill was asked who stood out.
"Adam Weber stood out," Kill said. "And I mean that in a positive way. I think that’s a good thing we did there [hiring Weber as a graduate assistant]. And certainly after one day’s practice, watching him work, that’s a good thing."
Weber (pictured right with quarterback Jacques Perra) is the school's all-time passing leader. Kill said Weber's presence will allow quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski to "move around a little more," with the rest of the offense.
"It’s one of the best things that can happen for us at the quarterback position," Mitch Leidner said. "Just having someone who’s been through it, someone who’s worked with some of the best in the pros, and having him here to help us with little things has been awesome."
Leidner said he also learned a lot from Ryan Maiuri, who had the team's offensive GA job the previous two years.
"He's a great guy who’s had a huge impact on my life," Leidner said.
Note: The Gophers will hold their second spring practice Thursday, but this one is closed. Beginning Saturday, all practices are open to the public. Here's a full list of the practice dates and times.
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