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 released their spring football practice schedule. The first two sessions are closed to the public, but the final 13 are open for public viewing, including the April 11 spring game. Here's the full schedule, with dates and times subject to change:
March 3, 4 p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex (Closed to the public)
March 5, 4:15 p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex (Closed to the public)
March 7, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 10, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 12, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 24, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 26, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 28, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 31, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 2, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 4, 9:50 a.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 7, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 9, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 10, 4:15p.m. – Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 11, 3 p.m. – Spring Game, TCF Bank Stadium
I caught up with Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys today, previewing spring practice, which starts March 3. He was in great spirits and feels very confident about the defense, even though they need to replace Damien Wilson, Cedric Thompson, Cameron Botticelli, Michael Amaefula, Derrick Wells and Co.
A few notables:
* Claeys said DT Scott Ekpe and LB Nick Rallis, two players coming off ACL surgery, will be full-go by June. Rallis provides key depth at all three linebacker spots, and Ekpe will be counted on to start at defensive tackle, alongside Steven Richardson.
* Claeys said middle linebacker is the obvious question, considering Wilson took almost all the reps there the past two seasons. He said Everett Williams and Cody Poock are both candidates to replace Wilson, and Jack Lynn could move back to the middle after starting at outside linebacker last year. Claeys said sophomore Jonathan Celestin's rapid development at outside linebacker would free up Lynn to move back to the middle, if necessary.
* The Gophers feel great about their secondary. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray are returning All-Big Ten cornerbacks. The coaches feel those two, along with safety Damarius Travis, all have NFL potential. Antonio Johnson has been a starting safety. And there is plenty of depth behind that foursome, too.
* Knowing the Gophers need to replace Amaefula at defensive end, Claeys mentioned Hank Ekpe. "He's really had a good offseason," Claeys said. "He’s as good an athlete as we’ve got on our football team." And Gaelin Elmore "continues to get better," Claeys said. "I don’t know how much weight he’s put on, but his body’s changing. I would imagine he’ll stay around the 270 mark. For how well he’s moving, we’ll leave him at defensive end."
* Also, I asked Claeys about the recent chatter about getting the NCAA to re-consider making freshmen ineligible again, and he said: “First off, if one [conference] does it, everyone needs to do it -- all Power 5 conferences. Otherwise you’re at a huge disadvantage. You’d have to tell them, 'You’re going to sit out here, but you can go to Missouri or somewhere like that and play right away as a freshman?'
“Number two, back when there was freshman ineligibility [before 1972], they also had more scholarships. So in our opinion, you’re going to have to increase scholarships because we’re going to go to battle. We probably play 8-10 freshmen each year, so they better jump that up, increase the scholarship numbers to 95 or whatever.”
When the Gophers open spring practice March 3, many eyes will be drawn to the quartet of wide receivers who redshirted last fall -- Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland and Jerry Gibson.
The Gophers have struggled at receiver, and they need to replace Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones. Drew Wolitarsky and KJ Maye are back, but after that, there's no wide receiver on the roster who caught more than one pass last year.
Coach Jerry Kill has raved about his redshirt freshmen quartet. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was more measured when I spoke to him this week.
“I know Coach [Kill] is pretty high on them, and I can see why,” Limegrover said. “Are they going to be complete receivers on April 11? Probably not. Are they going to be complete receivers on Sept. 1? Probably not. You’ve got to get through the growing pains with them, let them work against a darn good secondary for the next six months.”
That's a great point about the secondary. These receivers will need to be good if they're going to catch passes against the likes of Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Jalen Myrick and Craig James. The Gophers would put those cornerbacks up against anybody.
"[The redshirt freshmen receivers] work really hard," Limegrover said. "They put in extra time with the quarterbacks, and hopefully that’s going to pay off. We’ll see exactly how far they’ve come obviously in the spring, but they’re doing the right things.
"All of them have the potential to be very complete receivers. ... One of them probably will [emerge] a little quicker than the others. I can’t sit here and say right now which one that will be. One will impress a little bit sooner, one may take a little longer. But the one that takes longer, maybe by the end of his career, he'll be the one that continues to steadily increase and becomes the best one of the group.
"It’s just hard to say who that is at this point. I just like watching them run around, that’s for sure."
I caught up with Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover on Tuesday to get his thoughts looking ahead to spring practice, which starts March 3. Limegrover is always a good quote, so I'll be sprinkling his comments into my coverage throughout camp. For now, here are a few of the things I gleaned from the conversation:
* Limegrover plans to give Josh Campion a good look at guard this spring, knowing he could always move back to tackle. This would allow a potential starting O-line that includes the 6-7 Ben Lauer at left tackle and 6-9 Jonah Pirsig at right tackle, with the 6-5 Campion at one of the guard spots.
* But Limegrover isn't promising anything to Lauer or Pirsig. He challenged Lauer, specifically, feeling that he wasn't quite as driven as he need to be coming into last season after earning Freshman All-American honors in 2013. He knows Lauer dealt with a high ankle sprain and mono last fall but wants him to bring his A-game this spring. The same goes for Pirsig, even though he made big strides last season.
* With Tommy Olson graduated and Jon Christenson not expected to practice this spring, the center duties will primarily go to Brian Bobek and Connor Mayes. The Gophers expect Christenson to play a big role this fall, and they just want to him to focus on building strength after having a rod removed from his leg last week. Mayes and Christenson are candidates to start at center, as well as guard. Matt Leidner, Mitch's younger brother, provides depth on the center depth chart, and the Gophers might give some snaps to early enrollee Tyler Moore.
* Jerry Gibson will come to camp as a wide receiver. Someday, he might move to H-back, in the mold of Maxx Williams, but he hasn't put on enough weight for that yet. For now, Gibson is part of a talented quartet of wide receivers who redshirted last year, along with Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland.
* The two leading candidates to replace Williams at H-back are Duke Anyanwu (who tore an ACL in early August) and Nick Hart.
* The three leading candidates to replace Drew Goodger at the Y-tight end spot (more of a blocking position) are Lincoln Plsek, Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak. Lingen saw time behind Williams last year as a true freshman, but his future is at the Y-spot.
* As for replacing David Cobb, Limegrover said that will probably be a multi-person job, though he did say, "I think Rodrick [Williams] is working hard to prove that he can be a 22-25 carry, 55-65 play guy." Limegrover is also excited to see what Berkley Edwards, Rodney Smith and Jeff Jones can do this spring.
* Limegrover also can't wait to see how Mitch Leidner builds off the experience he gained as a full-time starting QB last fall. "I thought Mitch really settled down as the season went on, and I think there’s a comfort level," Limegrover said. "There’s just an air about him that’s completely different than it was last Feb. 17, just because it’s like, 'I've been through this all for a year. I’m going to be the starter. I’m going to be the guy.' There’s just a calmness to him now that I really like."
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