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.
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.”
Jerry Kill continues to have full confidence that the University of Minnesota will be ready to break ground on its new $150 athletic facilities project in August.
“I expect [the shovel] to be in the ground during two-a-day camp,” Kill said Friday. “That’s what I’ve said all along, and I expect that to happen. … I’ve told the recruits, and so it needs to get done.”
University CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter said last week that as with any university project, at least 80 percent of the money ($120 million) must be raised before construction can begin. Athletics Director Norwood Teague said $70 million has been raised thus far.
A Board of Regents document released last week states that a complete financing plan must be ready for approval at the June 11-12 Regents meeting in order to begin construction by October.
“I think when the board finalizes it in June, they should be able to get going immediately,” Kill said. “I don’t know the 80 percent rule, 70 percent rule, 90 percent rule -- that’s their job to figure all that out. They know we need to get it started in August.”
This week, the Board of Regents approved using $15 million of the money already raised for the project’s schematic design.
“That’s tremendous,” Kill said. “Right there, that tells you. Once you do that, things move pretty fast.”
* Offensive lineman Jon Christenson had a rod inserted into his left leg when he broke his tibia and fibula in a gruesome injury in November 2013. Christenson returned last season and started the Citrus Bowl at right guard. Christenson recently had the rod removed from the leg. The Gophers plan to withhold him from spring practice, but Kill said Christenson “will be a starter” again this fall.
* Cody Poock, who tore the ACL in his right knee last March, will be at full speed for spring practice and is a candidate to replace departing senior Damien Wilson as the starting middle linebacker.
* Duke Anyanwu, who tore the ACL in his right knee early in August, also has been cleared for spring practice, Kill said. Anyanwu is one of several candidates the Gophers are counting on to help replace NFL-bound tight end Maxx Williams.
* Scott Ekpe, who tore an ACL in last year’s season opener, is also making good progress but likely will be limited during spring ball. “We know what he can do,” Kill said. “We’ll make sure he’s healed up. He may get a few reps, but we’re going to be careful there.” The Gophers need to replace Cameron Botticelli, but they expect to have Ekpe and Steven Richardson back as their starting defensive tackles.
ORLANDO, FLA. -- The Gophers held their first Florida practice today in preparation for the Citrus Bowl, and Star Tribune photographer Liz Flores and I made it just in time to see it. The team allowed photo and video access for the first 20 minutes, so we'll wrap some of that into tonight's coverage.
Some quick jottings off practice:
* Gophers coach Jerry Kill confirmed that running back Jeff Jones finished the fall semester with a high enough GPA (Jones needed a 2.5 or above) to gain eligibility for spring practice. Sid Hartman had this news in his Sunday column. The Gophers were just waiting for the grades to become official, and now that's a done deal.
* Drew Wolitarsky, who missed the last four games with a sprained ankle, looked very good running drills. Kill said Wolitarsky is good to go for the bowl game.
* Kill said offensive tackle Ben Lauer, who has been out with mono, would have a limited role, at the most, in the bowl game. That limits the Gophers depth. They have Josh Campion and Jonah Pirsig starting at tackle, and those two will have their hands full against Missouri's defensive ends.
* It was overcast at Freedom High School but a very comfortable 72 degrees. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 80's the next three days.
The Gophers on Thursday held their first practice since their Nov. 29 loss at Wisconsin, and defensive coordinator/associate head coach Tracy Claeys said it was clear the players were well-rested with fresher legs.
Teams can hold up to 15 practices before a bowl game, and the Gophers are getting ready for the Citrus Bowl against Missouri on Jan. 1. Claeys said Friday will be another light practice, and that the team will step up the intensity on Sunday.
Claeys said the Gophers had their full defense back on the field Thursday, including safeties Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis, who had been banged up.
Claeys said wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky did not practice but the Gophers expect to have him back for the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against Missouri. Wolitarsky has missed the past four games with a high-ankle sprain.
"You’d like to have everybody healthy just like your first ballgame of the year, especially going against a team from the Southeast Conference," Claeys said.
Claeys was in charge Thursday with head coach Jerry Kill in Orlando with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel for a Citrus Bowl press conference.
The Gophers listed David Cobb as questionable on their official injury report Thursday and kept him off of their depth chart at tailback heading into Saturday's game at Wisconsin.
Cobb strained his left hamstring in last week's win over Nebraska. On Wednesday, in coach Jerry Kill's last public comments of the week, he said he didn't expect Cobb to practice Thursday. Kill said Cobb was "big-time questionable" and made it clear Cobb would have to practice before the Gophers would test his hamstring in a game.
For the Wisconsin game, the Gophers list their starting tailback as "Donnell Kirkwood or Rodrick Williams or Berkley Edwards."
The Gophers also list WR Drew Wolitarsky (ankle) as out, S Antonio Johnson (knee) as questionable, S Daletavious McGhee (unspecified injury) as questionable and TE Brandon Lingen (unspecified injury) as questionable.
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