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 had their last big scrimmage of preseason camp today at TCF Bank Stadium. It was closed to the media, but we gleaned a few highlights afterward, talking to coaches and players.
Center Tommy Olson said Mitch Leidner threw two touchdown passes -- one to Maxx Williams and one to Drew Goodger.
"Mitch really had a good day throwing the ball," Olson said. "I was really happy with our passing game, and the running game – we do pretty well most of the time with our running game. It seems like we threw the ball a little bit more today, and we really had a good day throwing. I was really happy for Mitch."
Olson said Goodger's touchdown catch was "unbelievable."
"We always joke that he’s getting old, but he’s still got it, so that’s pretty cool," Olson said. "... He out-jumped one of the D-backs. Drew had those ankle injuries a couple years ago, and it was just good to see him get up again."
Running backs coach Pat Poore said Donnell Kirkwood had a couple good runs in the red zone. I'm sure the defense made some big plays, too, but it was the offense's turn to talk to the media.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill kept Tuesday morning's practice short but sounded pleased coming off the field.
"There were some good things that happened out there today," he said. "Mitch [Leidner] continues to grow, and KJ Maye is just playing his tail end off right now. This is the first time I’ve seen him full-speed since he’s gotten here, and he’s really playing well.
"And of course, Maxx [Williams] is Maxx. And our offensive line is really playing well. We’ve got to get a couple guys healthy, which they will, but right now it's kind of messes things up a little bit. Defensive line, linebackers and secondary -- we’re pretty fast and athletic."
The Gophers had two practices Monday, and Kill said a couple plays stood out.
"Fifty-five seconds to go on the clock, Maxx Williams just made a tremendous catch on the goal line," Kill said. "Donovahn Jones made a catch over the top that we haven’t done. We’ve had some tight ends make some big catches. And Derrick Wells picked one off that most people don’t pick off."
On David Cobb, Kill said, "He’s playing unbelievable right now, special teams, the whole ball of wax. That just shows you, when you get some confidence, work hard, good things happen to you. And I think Berkley [Edwards] sees that, and that’s a good example of what people want to do. ... David’s body’s changed. Even this year, he’s cut up really well. So I think he’s going to have a really good year."
Brandon Jacobs, who starred for Kill at Southern Illinois before moving on to the New York Giants, was a special guest at Tuesday's practice. Kill was talking about building programs and thought back to when the 6-4, 250-pound Jacobs transferred to Southern Illinois from Auburn.
"That big fella that just walked by here, that’ll solve a lot of problems for you," Kill said.
Note: How tough is this year's schedule for the Gophers? I'll have an in-depth look in tonight's first editions.
The Gophers coaches saw some things they liked and some things they didn't like during Saturday's scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium.
"We’re into kind of the grind," Jerry Kill said. "They haven’t had a day off [since Aug. 1], and they’ve had school and all that. So we pushed them pretty hard, and I think some kids were tired. [Sunday], we’ll watch film with them and give them and give them some time off."
As Kill noted, his players are busy from about 7 a.m., through 9-10 p.m., throughout these early stages of camp.
They'll be back at practice Monday. Meantime, here's my Sunday story on linebackers De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson. And here's my scrimmage report.
One of Minnesota’s top recruits in this year’s freshman class is Connor Mayes, an offensive linemen from Van Alstyne, Texas, who played center in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Scout.com ranked him as the No. 2 center in the nation, but the Gophers started camp with Mayes lined up at right guard on their third-team offensive line. The decision offers a pretty good window into where things stand with what’s shaping up to be a deep offensive line corps.
Here’s how the lines looked the first week of camp:
FIRST GROUP: LT Ben Lauer, LG Zac Epping, C Tommy Olson, RG Foster Bush, RT Josh Campion
SECOND GROUP: LT Joe Bjorklund/Marek Lenkiewicz, LG Isaac Hayes, C Brian Bobek, RG Luke McAvoy/Jon Christenson, RT Jonah Pirsig
THIRD GROUP: LT Luke Rasmussen/Alex Mayes, LG Jared Weyler, C Matt Leidner, RG Connor Mayes, RT Chad Fahning
Matt Limegrover, who serves as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, had several reasons for putting Mayes at guard.
“It’s all about your opportunities and getting a chance to get closer to the field,” Limegrover said. “The one thing about it is Tommy Olson, since he came in [when Christenson broke his leg last November] has done a really good job [at center]. And then behind him, Brian Bobek is really pushing Tommy.
“So you’ve got great competition there, and to be honest with you, playing center as a freshman is a tough deal. Playing guard takes a little bit of that pressure off,” Limegrover said. “We figured that would help him, and it would be an early conduit to get to the field."
Caleb Bak, the Gophers longtime starter at right guard, had to retire because of concussion symptoms, and Christenson is still working his way back from the leg injury. For now, Bush is holding on at right guard, but the Gophers have considered putting Campion at right guard with Pirsig at right tackle.
Mayes could be a couple injuries away from being right in the mix for playing time at guard. He's spending time in team drills at that position, and getting practice snapping to quarterbacks as a center off to the side. Olson is a senior, and Bobek is a redshirt junior. It might take two years, but Mayes could very well be the Gophers center of the future.
So for now, Mayes is a guard. "But as it goes," Limegrover said, "he’s not going to be too far from center."
With Mitch Leidner entrenched as the No. 1 quarterback, the main QB intrigue in Gophers camp involves his backups.
Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler is the No. 2 starter. Will he be ready if Leidner gets injured? If not, next in line is Conor Rhoda, another redshirt freshman who walked on out of Cretin-Derham Hall.
Streveler, from Crystal Lake, Ill., has had up-and-down moments through the first week of practice, but he delivered the biggest offensive highlight Wednesday.
Streveler hit wide receiver Logan Hutton in stride on a skinny post for a 28-yard touchdown pass. For the celebration, Streveler ran to the end zone and jumped all over Hutton.
“Coach Kill always talks about having juice, so that was fun,” Streveler said. “It’s always fun to make a big play in practice. It was the first live period [of camp], so it was pretty sweet.”
Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said Streveler “sometimes plays better when he’s ticked.”
“I ripped him a little bit [Tuesday], and he just went crazy, [completing] throw after throw,” Zebrowski said. “He wants the ball on the next play.”
The rest of the field
Here are some quick thoughts from Zebrowski on the other Gophers quarterbacks besides Leidner and Streveler:
* On Rhoda: “Conor has a really, really strong arm and can stay in the pocket. And he’s really, really smart and can make some plays too. He can put the ball in some places some other kids can’t.”
* On Dimonic Roden-McKinzy (true freshman from Kansas City): “Kids just figure things out at different times. And for Dimonic, it’s taken him a while because things are going [fast], and him being shorter, he’s got to Russell Wilson some things. He’s got to really be perfect with his drop, really find gaps. He’s a good athlete, but he’s got to find gaps like Russell does and make things happen. For him, the curve is a little bit higher or longer. It’s going to take him a while to pick things up.
* On Jacques Perra (true freshman walk-on from Roseville): “He had some opportunities [to play elsewhere] and decided to come here. He’s a really good player. Quick release, accurate, smart kid. He’s really good. He’s done a really good job. He’s smart, and he picks things up really, really fast.”
Camp round up
* University President Eric Kaler stopped by to watch practice, wearing a gold Minnesota hat.
* Several true freshmen got chances to show their stuff during the end-of-practice scrimmage. Defensive tackle Steven Richardson got a chance to go against the first-team offense and appeared to fill his gaps very well. He's a shorter guy but weighs 291 pounds and looks like he'll be a factor. ... Cornerback Craig James delivered a huge hit to wide receiver Melvin Holland, Jr. .. Josh Parks, a walk-on running back from Chisago Lakes, also had some impressive runs.
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