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.
Jonah Pirsig had just finished a one-on-one blocking drill Tuesday, when Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover gave a shout that echoed inside the football complex.
“What has happened to you?” Limegrover said. “Whatever it is, keep growing the hair!”
At 6-9, Pirsig was an imposing figure from the moment he stepped on campus in 2012 as a highly touted recruit from Blue Earth, Minn. But after overcoming a knee injury and recent wrist surgery, Pirsig has filled out that frame and now has long, shaggy hair extending beneath his helmet. Watching Pirsig in that drill, Limegrover loved what he saw.
Pirsig came off the bench to play in seven games last year. He lined up at right tackle with the second team offensive line on the first day of spring practice. The Gophers have redshirt-junior Josh Campion back with the first team at right tackle and redshirt sophomore Ben Lauer at left tackle.
But depth is always critical on the line, and Pirsig looks like he’s ready to make a serious push.
“Jonah’s got the cast [on his wrist],” Coach Jerry Kill said. “He’ll have to get that off, but he’s huge. He’s a huge man. Even with the cast on, he’s made some big jumps [with his strength].”
Other quick first-day observations
* Mike Sherels, the soon-to-be-named linebackers coach, could be heard praising newcomer Cody Poock after the junior college transfer shed a block to get to running back Donnell Kirkwood in one drill. Poock lined up with the second-team defense behind Nick Rallis at strong-side linebacker.
* David Cobb looked completely refreshed, and the other running backs – Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and Berkley Edwards – all had good burst after recovering from leg injuries.
Edwards showed off his quick moves and explosive speed on several eye-opening plays. He was used exclusively at tailback, but I think the Gophers will line him up in the slot, too, to get him on the field with Cobb.
“Berkley Edwards -- all I can tell you is he’ll move around, he’ll be playing,” Kill said. “He’ll be doing a lot of things. He’s lightning in a bottle. So we’ve got some flexibility, and I don’t want to give away what we’re going to do. But our job is to get the right people the football. We’ve got to do a better job of that.”
The Gophers next practice is Thursday at 4 p.m.
With spring practice opening for the Gophers today, don’t forget about Jack Lynn.
The redshirt sophomore probably will line up with the second-team defense at middle linebacker, behind senior Damien Wilson, who was everything the Gophers hoped for last fall as a junior college transfer.
But Lynn’s time is coming.
The two starting outside linebackers from last year’s team graduated – Aaron Hill and James Manuel. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told me last week that he won’t hesitate to move Lynn to an outside linebacker spot after spring practice if he proves to be one of the team’s top three linebackers.
“We tell the kids all the time, if they’re good enough to start at another position, we’re going to do what’s best for the team,” Claeys said. “So if we get through spring ball, and Jack is our third best linebacker, we’re going to make the adjustments to put him in there because he would deserve that. He’s worked extremely hard, so I’m excited to see what he does.”
The middle linebacker plays a crucial role in the 4-3 defense, and Claeys believes it’s imperative to have two good ones ready. Last year, Lynn played in just three games, making five tackles, but he provided invaluable insurance while Wilson learned the system.
“Jack was redshirted [in 2012] because he needed to gain weight,” Claeys said. “He’s pushing 240 pounds now, and he has tremendous length [at 6-3].
“He’s really on schedule for a normal player that you bring into a Big Ten program. He should get quite a few reps his redshirt sophomore year. And his junior and senior year, it’s going to be one of those things where the [middle linebacker] position is his to lose because of the work he’s put in.”
Bottom line: I think Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell are two locks to start at linebacker. Junior college transfer Cody Poock, Nick Rallis, De’Niro Laster and Rayfield Dixon are candidates to start at strong-side linebacker. But Lynn has a chance to become a starter this fall.
The Gophers will be even more likely to shift Lynn if they like what they see from incoming recruit Everett Williams, from Mansfield, Texas. Williams was a consensus three-star recruit, but Tom Lemming, of CBS Sports Network, sees an even higher ceiling.
“Everett Williams is a very good athlete,” Lemming told me. “I went and saw him. He can run with the backs. He’s a big-time guy. He’s got four-star potential. He can run.”
Former Gophers linebacker Mike Sherels already received one promotion this offseason. Now he’s about to be promoted again.
There were indications Monday that the Gophers plan to tab Sherels as the linebackers coach. The news was first reported by ESPN1500.
The Gophers were still finalizing the hire after opening a search to replace Bill Miller, who left to become the linebackers coach at Florida State.
Sherels played linebacker for the Gophers from 2004 to 2007, recording 219 tackles. The Rochester native is the only walk-on ever to be named a two-time captain.
He has worked for the Gophers since 2011 and spent last season as a defensive graduate assistant before being promoted to an assistant recruiting coordinator.
After strong showings at last month’s NFL Combine, Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen had little to prove Monday at the Gophers’ annual Pro Day.
But Hageman and Vereen were both among the Gophers who turned out for an event that drew officials from 19 NFL teams at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.
The Vikings had at least 15 people there, including new head coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman. Zimmer was on the field giving instruction as the players went through their position drills. What did he say to Hageman?
“He just said I was doing well,” Hageman said. “There were some good things they saw, and obviously, ‘Keep my phone on.’”
Indeed, Hageman has a good chance of becoming first Gophers player picked in the first round since Laurence Maroney in 2006.
Of course, Hageman will have to wait two more months to find out, as the NFL Draft has been moved back to May 8-10.
“That is a very long time,” he said. “So I think I’m just going to barricade myself in my room. Just play video games and just work out.”
Vereen stays focused
Vereen and Hageman did position drills and let their numbers from the Combine speak for themselves.
At the Combine, Vereen ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds and did 25 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press – more than any other defensive back.
“I feel like I opened some eyes at the combine and I wanted to show them [during Pro Day] that it wasn’t a fluke or anything like that,” Vereen said.
Vereen is a potential mid- to late-round pick, but don’t get him going about the speculation.
“I haven’t watched ESPN in two months,” he said. “I haven’t watched NFL Network. If somebody starts a conversation about that, I tell them to stop. I’ll worry about that in May.”
He said he plans to watch the draft with his family in California, including his brother Shane Vereen, the New England Patriots running back.
“I can’t just sit and watch the TV,” Brock Vereen said. “We’ll probably go bowling or something.”
Former Gophers wide receiver Derrick Engel had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on Dec. 3, so all he could do was watch Monday.
But Engel hopes to be running full speed in April and be cleared for free agent workouts in May. How fast could Engel run the 40 if he were healthy?
“I think if I really trained for it, I’d have the potential to go sub 4.4 [seconds],” he said. “That’s kind of the goal I’ve set for myself. … Judging off Brock, I know we’re pretty close in speed and I’ve beat him in conditioning races.”
Other Gophers standouts
* One highlight of Pro Day came in the weight room, where former Gophers defensive tackle Roland Johnson did 40 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. For comparison, Hageman did 32 at the Combine.
“Actually, I expected to get 50,” Johnson said. “The record is 49, and that was my goal.”
* Former Gophers cornerback Jeremy Baltazar ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds and did 27 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
* Former Gophers linebacker James Manuel ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds and posted a 37-inch vertical jump.
Hageman, a potential first-round pick, measured in at 6-6, 310 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.02 seconds and posted a 35.5-inch vertical. In the bench press, he did 32 reps at 225 pounds, third most among defensive linemen. He also broad jumped 114 inches.
According to the Baltimore Sun, one of teams Hageman met with was the Ravens, who pick 17th.
Vereen, a potential mid- to late-round pick, really opened some eyes. He's not just Shane Vereen's brother. Brock measured 6-feet, 199 pounds. His 40 time (4.47 seconds) was the fastest of any safety at the Combine, and he bench pressed 225 pounds 25 times, leading all safeties and cornerbacks. Vereen also posted a 34-inch vertical and broad jumped 117 inches.
The Strib's Master Tesfatsion caught up with Brock in Indianapolis -- good stuff.
The Gophers are holding their Pro Day on Monday, and Hageman and Vereen are among those slated to attend. The NFL Draft is May 8-10.
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