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.
In the spirit of Opening Day, let's draw a quick analogy between the Gophers football team and the Twins.
Both fan bases have been hearing about help on the horizon. With the Twins, it's Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, etc. These are some of the most promising prospects in baseball, but they're still in the minors, so who knows how good they'll eventually be?
With the Gophers, it's the trio of redshirt freshmen receivers: Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr., and Desmond Gant. All three certainly look promising. Gentry is 6-4, 205 pounds. Holland is 6-3, 196. Gant is 6-3, 214.
All three have made plays this spring. Gentry has that extra gear, so to speak. Holland might be the most polished. Gant is a little more raw, but you can see the upside. With the spring game coming this Saturday, fans have been looking forward to seeing this trio.
But Gentry missed the past two practices with hamstring tightness, and Gant has been out with concussion symptoms. It's unclear how much, if any, they'll be able to do in the spring game.
So it's worth remembering the other returning receivers. KJ Maye (16 Rec, 298 yds) is back for his senior year and clearly a leader now. Drew Wolitarsky (10 Rec, 106 Yds), a junior, is back to full health after missing four games last November with a sprained ankle.
Then there's Eric Carter. The 5-11, 189-pound Florida native managed just one catch last season as a redshirt freshman, but he's taken a step in his development this spring.
"He’s done a nice job, he really has," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "He’s improved a bunch, probably as much as anybody."
The Gophers are using Jeff Jones as a slot receiver in addition to tailback. Add it up, and there should be plenty of intriguing receiving options to watch at the spring game.
David Cobb made several good plays plays in the Citrus Bowl, with his usual assortment of runs along with four receptions out of the backfield. But I still remember how fired up Gophers coach Jerry Kill got when Cobb made a key pass block for Mitch Leidner, helping set up the Maxx Williams double-hurdle touchdown.
Cobb wasn't always the best pass blocker, but that's something he worked hard at, clearing the way to more playing time as a junior and senior. It was fair to wonder how well the running backs would be at pass protection this spring, with Cobb now graduated.
That was an issue for Rodrick Williams in the past. Whenever he was in the game, opponents basically knew the Gophers were going to run. But I don't think that's been an issue this spring for Williams or any of the backs.
"We’ve done a good job with the backs with protection," Kill said Thursday. "And to be honest with you, with [running backs coach Pat] Poore, we’ve always done a pretty good job. If they don’t pass protect, they don’t play."
Kill specifically mentioned the job Berkley Edwards has done in pass protection and said this hasn't been an issue for freshman Jeff Jones, either.
"They've all done a good job," Kill said.
Asked about Leidner, Kill said the junior has been more composed of late.
"He’s throwing the ball very well, but our protection’s been better, so it’s a combination of many things," Kill said. "But his composure over the last three or four practices has been really good."
Update: The Gophers announced that they will practice at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday at 9:40 a.m. These sessions are open to the public, and they typically scrimmage for long portions of practice on spring Saturdays.
As Damarius Travis said recently, the Gophers defense backs are hungry to prove they have the best secondary in the Big Ten. They will likely start two seniors at safety (Travis and Antonio Johnson) and two seniors at cornerback (Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun).
But they know it’s going to take more than four guys. In fact, they’ll probably be running their nickel package, with five defensive backs, more than their base packages.
This spring, they’ve had junior Jalen Myrick and junior college transfer Charlie Rogers working at nickel. As a fallback, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Murray could move to nickel, as he’s done it before.
“That nickel -- we ask an awful lot of him,” Claeys said. “It’s gotta be a guy who can blitz and tackle. When you blitz, you want somebody who can get there and do some damage; it can’t be too light a guy. But at the same time, you’re asking him to cover some people who run very well, so it’s a tough position.”
Claeys trumpets Thompson's NFL upside
Former Gophers safety Brock Vereen was a fourth-round pick by the Bears last year after an impressive showing at the NFL Combine. Vereen’s stock rose steadily through the winter and early spring, and now the same is happening for Cedric Thompson.
Thompson didn’t get a Combine invite, so the pressure was on March 2, at the Gophers Pro Day. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds and posted a 40.5-inch vertical jump. The Vikings, Texans, Patriots, Giants and Dolphins are among the teams taking a long look at him.
“I think Cedric’s upside in the NFL is tremendous,” Claeys said. “He won’t have school, so he’ll spend every free minute working on the video and what he’s supposed to do. And then, he works extremely hard in practice.”
Claeys was talking about Travis’ NFL potential when he said so much of it comes down to workouts. The scouts want to see these players’ top-end speed, and Thompson was able to show his at Pro Day.
“I think Cedric’s played well for us the last two years,” Claeys said. “He’s not somebody who was on a lot of people’s lists. The [scouts] came through, they’ve seen him run, and it was all going to be based off his workout.”
The Gophers plucked another recruit from a deep in-state class Tuesday, when Phillip Howard, a multi-position athlete from Robbinsdale Cooper, announced he was committing to Minnesota.
Howard attended the Gophers’ practice and notified the coaching staff there. He is the fourth top Minnesota recruit to commit for the 2016 class, joining Eden Prairie linebacker Carter Coughlin, East Ridge defensive tackle Jojo Garcia and Robbinsdale Armstrong linebacker Thomas Barber.
Howard has played quarterback for Cooper and could be either a wide receiver or a cornerback in college. He also had reported offers from Wyoming, Western Michigan and North Dakota State, among others.
Howard posted the news on Twitter:
The Gophers announced this morning that Saturday's practice has been moved to TCF Bank Stadium, at 9:30 a.m., and is open to the public. This will be their eighth session of the spring and the first outdoors.
The Minnesota Football Coaches Association is holding its spring clinic this weekend, with about 1,400 coaches in downtown Minneapolis. Jerry Kill is among the featured speakers, and hundreds of coaches usually take in a Gophers practice while they're in town.
This should be a fun practice to watch. The Gophers usually "go live" and scrimmage on spring Saturdays.
More thoughts from Limegrover
On Thursday, Matt Limegrover gave some insight into how the battles are shaping up along the offensive line. I posted his thoughts on Josh Campion moving to guard in this report, but I wanted to update the rest of the line battles.
Remember, Jon Christenson had a rod removed from his leg and is rehabbing right now, but the Gophers expect him to be fully healthy this summer. Christenson is a likely starter at either center or left guard.
The first-team O-line this week has been Ben Lauer (left tackle), Joe Bjorklund (left guard), Brian Bobek (center), Campion (right guard) and Jonah Pirsig (right tackle).
"Ben Lauer’s going to be just fine," Limegrover said. "He’s had a real good spring ball so far at left tackle. We’ve got to find a backup [at left tackle], we’re a little bit shy right there. Our backup may not be on campus yet in all honesty.
"We’ve got to have somebody step up. If you’re not good at left tackle, you’re not going to be good as an offense. And that's what’s happening sometimes, when [second-string QB] Chris Streveler’s in there, he’s having some trouble over there."
Connor Mayes is another candidate to start at either left guard or center, but he's had a rough week snapping the ball as the second-string center.
"We’ve gotta get Connor squared away," Limegrover said. "It’s a little different snapping [without the defense lined up], but you put someone breathing down your neck, and it’s a little different scenario. So he’s got to keep working at that every day. He’s doing a nice job, but I’ll tell you who’s been real consistent throughout the spring is Brian Bobek. So I’ve been real happy with that."
A gem of a book
Finally, I wanted to throw in a plug for Kristian Pope's new book, "Godballers." Kris is a good friend of mine from our time working together at the Minnesota Daily, and he poured his heart and soul into this. It's the story of a remarkable year on the college basketball beat -- and so much more. From the Amazon link:
Godballers is the journey of a rookie sports reporter looking to make a name for himself when he quickly discovers that life at his new assignment travels in a slower gear. There he meets a coach haunted by his past and driven by his future. In this true tale of faith, the coach must overcome an unthinkable tragedy and find a cure for his son's life-threatening illness to fulfill the young man's dream of playing college basketball. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, Godballers follows every thrilling moment of the season and teaches indelible lessons in life, family and the true meaning of faith.
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