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'm writing a story on Gophers defensive back Derrick Wells for our Sunday editions. In the meantime, here's some quick notes from Spring Practice #6:
In my first seven weeks on the Gophers beat, there have been some sizeable developments, even though it's the offseason.
In the last week before the Feb. 6 signing day, the Gophers won recruiting battles for four key players in their 2013 class -- TE Nate Wozniak, DB Daletavius McGhee, QB/WR Donovahn Jones and LB De’Vondre Campbell.
On Feb. 2, the Gophers landed their first verbal commitment for 2014, and it was a big one. Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeff Jones is rated as the nation’s 169th best recruit for that class, by Rivals.com. It’ll be another 50 weeks before he signs an official letter of intent, but it should only help the Gophers recruiting efforts.
“It’s good for Minnesota to kind of put a fence around their own state,” said Tom Lemming, recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “Initially, you’ve got to land your top guys, and then you go out of state after that. I think it really bodes well for the class of 2014. They can use him sort of a centerpiece to attract [De La Salle QB] Reid Travis and some of the other guys.”
Travis is a highly coveted basketball recruit, too. Another key recruiting prize from Minnesota for 2014 is Owatonna DE Andrew Stelter. It’ll be interesting to see if Jones’ commitment helps the Gophers lure the other premier players from Minnesota.
Jones sounds determined to help. As he told ESPN1500, "I want the Minnesota kids who Minnesota wants to be able to say, 'Jeff Jones chose this school, so it must be a good option.' "
Need more proof that Minnesota’s in-state high school football talent was down this year?
Rivals.com released its annual report this week, showing the number of scholarship players each state is sending to FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools.
Minnesota has seven: James Onwualu (Notre Dame), Keelon Brookins (Wisconsin), Malik Rucker (Iowa), Jack Cottrell (Boston College), Chris Wipson (Gophers), Tyson Reinke (Kent State) and Jackson Wilson (Air Force).
For comparison, the state of Wisconsin produced 24 FBS scholarship players this year, Iowa had eight, and Idaho had seven. So Minnesota and Idaho were tied.
Last year, Minnesota produced 17 FBS signees, and 10 of those landed with the Gophers, including Philip Nelson, Jonah Pirsig, Isaac Hayes and Andre McDonald.
In 2011, Minnesota had 11 FBS signees, so maybe the number will bounce back again next year. The Gophers already have a verbal commitment from Jeff Jones, a four-star junior running back from Minneapolis Washburn.
According to Rivals.com, one of every 124 high school players in Florida signed an FBS scholarship this year. In Minnesota, it was one of every 3,403 players.
Last week, Chip Scoggins wrote about the effect Minnesota’s talent deficit is having on the Gophers, and here’s my story explaining why the Gophers signed just one scholarship player from their home state this year.
As for the possibility that Big Ten teams will drop FCS (formerly Division I-AA) opponents from future schedules, Michael Rand weighs in here on how that might impact the Gophers and FCS programs from the Dakotas.
Update: An e-mailer made a terrific point that bears mentioning here. Minnesota has produced a ton of players who've been a big part of the recent success at St. Thomas, North Dakota State and Minnesota-Duluth. The Rivals.com report focused on players heading to FBS schools, but Minnesota's contributions to those other programs shouldn't be overlooked.
OK, as I keep saying, I'm new to this. But Urban Meyer is either one of the most egotistical, self-righteous coaches in sports, or he's exactly what the Big Ten needs.
Maybe he's both.
In an interview Thursday on 97.1-FM in Columbus, Meyer acknowledged his concerns about Big Ten recruiting lagging behind the SEC and said this needs to be the focus of the discussions Monday at the conference coaching meeting.
Some media outlets have run with this, suggesting Meyer is going sit there with Brady Hoke, Bo Pelini, Bill O'Brien, Mark Dantonio, Jerry Kill, etc., and tell them it's time to step up their recruiting game. Can you imagine?
I wanted to make sure Meyer wasn't taken out of context, so I went back to listen to the interview. The question comes at the 2:25 mark:
Question: "Urban, you won two national titles in the SEC, and that league is on a heck of a roll, and I know you get asked this question all the time. ... You guys are on a heck of a roll right now, your rival to the north [Michigan] seems to be doing pretty good -- they had the nice class [Wednesday]. Is there any concern for you that the rest of the Big Ten isn’t holding up its end of the bargain, and do you think that’s important for what you’re trying to build here at Ohio State?"
Meyer: "Well, it’s not only important, it’s essential. It has to happen. And I don’t know enough about what goes on in the other programs. I know I have a lot of respect for the tradition and their historical success they’ve had, but we do need to as a conference need to keep pushing that envelope to be better. And I think ... our whole conversation [Monday] needs to be about how do we recruit? When you see 11 of the SEC teams are in the Top 25 in recruiting, that’s something we need to continue to work on and improve."
Here's the breakdown of the Top 40 classes, as ranked by Rivals.com:
SEC -- Alabama (1), Florida (4), LSU (6), Ole Miss (7), Auburn (8), Texas A&M (10), Georgia (12), South Carolina (16), Vanderbilt (19), Tennessee (20), Mississippi State (25), Arkansas (26), Kentucky (28), Missouri (39).
BIG TEN -- Ohio State (2), Michigan (5), Nebraska (17), Michigan State (38).
Now, if Meyer wants to lead a discussion about how to put the Big Ten, as a whole, in better position to recruit, more power to him. He has concerns about 11 a.m. (Central) kickoffs, for example, and the difficulty teams have getting recruits to campus in time after their Friday night games.
But he didn't handle the question very well. He could have taken the high road and been careful not to make it sound like he was calling out the other coaching staffs. His isn't the only one that recruits 24/7/365.
This year's 61st-ranked Gophers class can't match up with Ohio State's. Is that because Urban Meyer outhustled and outflanked Jerry Kill? Not necessarily. There are countless factors that go into it -- a program's recent success, facilities, game-day atmosphere, nearby talent pools.
Ohio State signed 10 players from Ohio, including five that are ranked as four-star recruits. Minnesota's talent crop was way down this year, so the Gophers signed one in-state kid and got the rest from 11 other states, including Florida (four), Georgia (three), Texas (two) and California (one).
Kill's staff combed the country, just as Meyer's did. The assistant coaches were everywhere, and Kill made home visits to all but one of the players Minnesota signed.
"This is the hardest as a head coach that I've gone in 32 years," Kill said Wednesday. "I mean, I have competed, hard. Because I know I have to."
So Meyer might have some ideas about game times and other logistics. But to suggest that he's going to give Kill and these other coaches a little kick in the butt Monday? Please.
On National Signing Day, with every recruit seemingly loaded with promise, Gophers coach Jerry Kill probably summed it up best.
"They're all paper tigers until they come through academics and go play," he said.
Sometimes, the recruits do OK academically, but they get injured, or for some other reason, all the talent that recruiters saw in high school just doesn't translate to college.
Willie Mobley was a four-star D-line recruit for Eden Prairie in 2008. Then-Gophers coach Tim Brewster recruited him hard, but Mobley picked Ohio State. After redshirting for the Buckeyes, Mobley transferred to Orange Coast (Calif.) College and then to Arizona.
He tore an ACL in 2011, but in three years at Arizona, he played in 23 games and made just 27 tackles, as colleague Patrick Reusse notes on Twitter.
On Wednesday, Mobley turned up on the signing list at New Mexico State, as the Tucson (Ariz.) Citizen reports. Mobley got his undergraduate degree at Arizona, and now he's transferring as a grad student. He'll need to get a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA by showing an injury contributed to his 2008 redshirt year at Ohio State.
If it works, Mobley will face the Gophers when they visit New Mexico State in the season's second game, on Sept. 7.
GOPHERS WALK-ON CLASS
On that note, every school has several walk-ons eager to prove the talent evaluators wrong. Other kids might be more heavily recruited, but these players can't wait to get to fall practice and show what they can do.
On Wednesday, the Gophers announced five walk-ons who have signed admission acceptances at the University. A closer look:
Jeffrey Borchardt, WR, Wayzata, 6-0, 185: Second-team All-State selection. Scored six TDs (four rushing, two receiving) in 49-14 playoff victory over Champlin Park. All-State in track as a junior.
Michael Conway, QB, La Crosse Aquinas (Wis.), 6-5, 205: Named La Crosse Tribune Football Player of the Year after throwing for 1,950 yards and 20 TDs and rushing for 800 yards and 11 TDs.
Chad Fahning, OL, De La Salle, 6-6, 270: First-team All-State selection. Turned down a scholarship from Western Michigan. Can play either guard or tackle. Started 34 games in high school.
Matt Leidner, OL, Lakeville South, 6-2, 280: Second-team All-State selection recorded 105 pancake blocks as a senior. His older brother, Mitch, redshirted at QB for the Gophers last season.
Conor Rhoda, QB, Cretin-Derham Hall, 6-3, 195: Threw for 1,400 yards and 19 TDs, and rushed for 600 yards and three TDs. Along with Notre Dame recruit James Onwualu, helped lead the Raiders to a 6-3 finish.
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