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.
Cameron Botticelli was a little-known walk-on from Milwaukee when he arrived at the University of Minnesota in 2010. He wound up starting 47 games for the Gophers and was named their defensive lineman of the year last season.
So go ahead and tell Botticelli that the NFL might be out of reach. He didn’t get invited to the combine last month and probably won’t be one of the 250-plus players picked in the draft.
But Botticelli will be among several recent graduates going all out Monday, when the Gophers hold their annual pro day before a throng of NFL scouts at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex.
Maxx Williams, Damien Wilson and David Cobb will look to build off their performances at the combine, though Cobb could still be limited after injuring a quad in Indianapolis.
The list of other NFL hopefuls expected to work out Monday includes Cedric Thompson, Derrick Wells, Zac Epping, Michael Amaefula, Isaac Fruechte, Donnell Kirkwood, Logan Hutton, Harold Legania, Ben Perry, Devon White and Marcus Jones. Another interesting one to watch will be Derrick Engel, who was the Gophers’ leading receiver in 2013 before tearing an ACL late that season.
Getting drafted would be a dream for all these players, but what they all want most is a chance to perform in an NFL camp.
“I’ve prepared myself all along to make my way and to create an opportunity for myself as an undrafted free agent,” Botticelli said. “Whatever opportunity I get, I will attack with every ounce of fervor [as] I have everything else to this point.”
At pro day, players will perform all the drills from the combine — including the 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump, bench press, three-cone drill and shuttle. Several of these players have been training for this since Jan. 2, the day after the team’s Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri.
That next day, Botticelli flew from Orlando to Nashville, where he worked out at the DI Sports Training complex. Botticelli, Thompson and Wilson also had a chance to impress scouts at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, Calif.
Botticelli measured 6-5, 292 pounds at the NFLPA Bowl and hopes the rest of his measurements — 40 time, etc. — hit their peak Monday. Then again, these numbers have never defined him.
Recent Super Bowls have shown the path to stardom doesn’t always include the combine. Malcolm Butler, who made the game-saving interception for New England this year, wasn’t at the combine and wasn’t drafted. Malcolm Smith, the MVP of last year’s Super Bowl for Seattle, wasn’t at the combine either and sneaked into the 2011 draft in the seventh round, at No. 242 overall.
“Some of the best things that I bring to the table can’t be measured at the combine,” Botticelli said. “As far as understanding defenses schematically, being coachable, being a positive leader. I think whoever does take a chance on me, they’re going to have to wait until they get me to camp because you can’t measure that stuff in person.”
“No matter what happens at pro day, I’m still going to have to go out and earn it the hard way, just as I’ve done here at the University of Minnesota.”
As first cousins, teammates and roommates, former Gophers Damien Wilson and David Cobb have gotten to know each other inside and out. Last October, when I visited their two-bedroom apartment on University Avenue, I asked Cobb to share something about Wilson that might surprise people.
"He likes to bake," Cobb said, chuckling. "Red-velvet cakes and cookies. I’ve got a sweet tooth, but it’s not just me. If he makes a batch of cookies, we already know -- if it's 16, he gets eight and I get eight. And that probably lasts maybe three minutes."
I caught up with Wilson on Monday and asked him if he's done any baking out in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he and Cobb are living now, getting ready for next week's NFL Combine.
"No, no, no, no!" Wilson said. "We can’t make cookies anymore. We had to cut back on that for a while. ... Maybe after we both get drafted, we can celebrate with a batch of cookies."
Wilson said he and Cobb have been working out six days per week. They are up at 7 each morning for elaborate workouts in Carson, Calif., at the Exos training complex, which was formerly known as API (Athletes Performance Institute).
The 6-2 Wilson shed 10 pounds before his senior season and played at 240 pounds last year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and ranked third in the conference with 9.2 tackles per game.
Wilson has been working to add more explosiveness, but he's maintaining his weight at 240.
"[Linebackers] in the NFL have a wide range," he said. "Some guys are playing at 265. Some are playing at 220-230. I feel like 240 is about perfect for me. I think it’s just about making plays and understanding concepts at the next level and being able to move around comfortable at the weight you are at."
Ever since they were kids, Wilson and Cobb have pushed each other to be great.
"I’ll give you an example," Wilson said. "[Monday] at about 2'oclock, we had just finished our lifting workouts, and we were about to go home. Dave stopped me and said, 'Damien, come back. Let’s get some abs in.' Next thing you know we're doing 200 situps right there."
That was their old summertime routine, when they were getting ready for high school training camp.
"We push each other to do that little extra -- that 10 percent to give it 110 percent," Wilson said.
Wilson has known since December that he'd be headed for the NFL Combine, which runs Feb. 17-23 in Indianapolis. He'll be joined by Cobb and former Gophers teammate Maxx Williams. Cobb continued turning heads last month at the Senior Bowl, and Williams has drawn first-round draft projections. Wilson is one of those players who has a chance to boost his stock the most.
"It's pretty sweet, knowing I’ll get a chance to go out there and strut my stuff," Wilson said.
After getting dismissed from the Gophers football team in late-December, wide receiver Donovahn Jones has signed at North Carolina A&T. The school announced Jones' arrival this week when it unveiled its 2015 recruiting class.
North Carolina A&T is an Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) school, so Jones will be eligible to play immediately and will be a junior this fall. The Aggies won the MEAC title last year, going 9-4 overall.
Jones, who hails from Stockbridge, Ga., and had offers from several SEC schools coming out of high school, started nine games for the Gophers last year, making 11 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. The Gophers dismissed him from the team in Orlando, Fla., before the Citrus Bowl, for an unspecified violation of team rules.
(Hat tip to @Gobie247 for making note of Jones' signing at North Carolina A&T today on Twitter.)
Gophers running back Berkley Edwards was a top high school sprinter in Michigan, and now he'll have a chance to test that speed collegiately.
Edwards is joining the Gophers track and field team this season, the athletics department said Tuesday, confirming a report in the Minnesota Daily, by Jack Satzinger.
Football remains Edwards' top athletic priority, as he will go through a full spring practice and participate in track when there are no conflicts with football. Former Gophers receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts is another example of a player who competed in both football and track.
Edwards won the 100-meter (10.58 seconds) and 200-meter (21.37) dashes at the Michigan state meet for Chelsea High School and was also a member of the 4x100 meter relay at the Junior Olympics. The Gophers' next track meet is the Jack Johnson Invitational, which starts Friday at the U of M Fieldhouse.
Edwards played 12 football games for the Gophers last season, getting 30 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He was limited by a shoulder injury after redshirting with an ankle injury in 2013. He's expected to compete for more playing time this fall, as the Gophers look to replace standout running back David Cobb.
Giovan Jenkins is stepping down as Minneapolis Washburn's football coach to become a volunteer in the Gophers' football department, Washburn Athletics Director Reginald Perkins announced Tuesday.
Jenkins spent 14 seasons as an assistant coach and head coach at Washburn, helping the Millers win 13 Minneapolis Conference championships and advance to the section finals six times, with one state tournament appearance.
Jenkins coached Ra'Shede Hageman and Jeff Jones on their way to joining the Gophers. Beginning in March, Jenkins will be volunteering for the Gophers in a non-coaching capacity.
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