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.
With the Gophers' season over, the graduating seniors can focus now on the possibility of extending their football careers.
Quarterback/receiver MarQueis Gray announced via Twitter on Monday that he "Just got the news that I'm officially invited to the NFL Combine! Time to get busy!"
But he's not the only Gopher expected to showcase his talents for NFL scouts. In fact, thanks to the NFL's new, expanded talent scouting process, nearly every senior can be evaluated by professional talent-hunters.
Gray has presumably been invited to the National Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, a weeklong workout-and-interview session for roughly 300 prospects which begins Feb. 20 in Indianapolis. That's where most of the top prospects for next April's NFL draft will go, hoping to solidify their professional prospects, and where Gray will attempt to impress scouts with his physical stature and ability. His case will be particularly interesting, given that his position as a pro -- receiver? tight end? linebacker? running back? Wildcat quarterback? -- has not been established.
But last year, the NFL expanded the process to include 10 regional combines, including four for punters and kickers, and a "super-regional" shortly before the draft for players who made a strong impression in the early sessions. Every collegiate player with NFL potential, in other words, should have a chance to prove his professional worthiness.
Cornerback Troy Stoudermire is in Houston, where on Wednesday he will begin training for the combine process. Other Gophers expected to get a look from scouts include cornerback Michael Carter, defensive end D.L. Wilhite, linebackers Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis, and tight end John Rabe.
Jerry Kill was sweating when he emerged from the Gophers' practice facility, and it had nothing to do with Texas Tech's passing game. Well, not much.
"It felt like it was 90 degrees in there," Kill said of the indoor practice field. "Of course, I had a sweatshirt on."
But the higher temperature wasn't his imagination, nor an accident. The Gophers' game with the Red Raiders will be played inside the Reliant Stadium on Dec. 28, and while it's possible the building's domed roof will be retracted for the game, it's more likely that the Meineke Car Care Bowl will occur indoors.
It's not a huge adjustment, but one worth preparing for, Kill figured. The long-term forecast calls for a high in the mid-60s in Houston next Friday, and the game could be played in room-temperature conditions.
That's as opposed to the normal temperatures in Minnesota's practice facility. "When we first started practicing (two weeks ago), I was about to freeze to death in there," Kill said. "I said, 'Hey, I don't think it's going to be quite this cold in Houston. We've turned the heat up to 75-80 degrees in there, to make sure we understand the sweat."
That part worked. Players were drenched in sweat as they walked off the field and onto buses to take them to TCF Bank Stadium's locker room to change.
Once they arrive in Houston this weekend, the Gophers will practice outdoors at St. Thomas High School.
With final exams mostly over and their trip to Houston looming, the Gophers turn their attention to the Texas Tech Red Raiders today.
Minnesota holds its seventh bowl practice Wednesday afternoon, but it will be different from the first six, coach Jerry Kill said. The Gophers, whose season finale comes Dec. 28 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Reliant Stadium, have spent December reviewing fundamentals, getting their academics in order, and giving the redshirts and underclassmen a head start on this spring's drills.
"It's been good. I've been excited about watching the young guys," Kill said. He's been impressed enough, he said, "that you'd like to take the redshirts off three or four of them, but you can't."
With recruiting entering an NCAA-enforced holiday break, most of Kill's assistant coaches are back on campus. With final exams winding down, most of his players are ready to focus on football. So the Gophers will practice today, tomorrow and Friday, before heading to Houston on Saturday.
And the generalities of the first half-dozen practices will give way to a new focus at this week's practices. In pre-practice meetings today, Kill and his staff will unveil the Gophers' game plan, then put it into motion on the practice field these next three days.
"We're going to try to get the game plan stuff in (place) here," Kill said, "so when we go down to the bowl site, we're not padded up. We can get their shoulders back, shorten up the practices."
Once they arrive in Houston, there are plenty of other activities to hold the players' interest, so Kill wants his team familiar with their game strategies ahead of time. The Gophers will hold daily practices in Houston at St. Thomas High School, roughly seven miles from Reliant Stadium, while Texas Tech works out at Rice University. (The Texans' practice facility, used by bowl teams last year, is unavailable this year because the Texans will be using it until late afternoon, and the University of Houston's stadium is undergoing extensive renovations.)
MarQueis Gray is the Gophers' most valuable player for the second straight year, the team announced Sunday after its annual awards banquet Sunday afternoon.
Gray, who opened the season as the starting quarterback but moved to receiver after suffering knee and ankle injuries in the season's third game, was also named the winner of the Paul Giel award as the most unselfish player and most concerned about Minnesota.
Gray joins Laurence Maroney in 2004-05 and eight other Gophers as back-to-back winners of the award. The last quarterback honored in two straight seasons was Rickey Foggie, who won it in 1984-85 and also 1987.
Coach Jerry Kill, who suffered a seizure during halftime of Saturday's 26-10 loss to Michigan State, did not attend the banquet at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
Tailback Donnell Kirkwood, who finished the regular season with 849 rushing yards, was chosen the team's outstanding offensive player, and defensive back Michael Carter was named the outstanding defensive player -- an award won by his cousin, cornerback Tyrone Carter, in 1998 and 1999. Punter Christian Eldred was named the outstanding special-teams player.
The inaugural Gary Tinsley Award, named for the former Gophers linebacker who died in April, went to his former roommate, linebacker Keanon Cooper. The award will be given annually to the player "who best embraced Tinsley's underdog personna," the university said.
The award for best competitor on the field and in the classroom went to linebacker Aaron Hill for the second straight year. Receiver Connor Cosgrove, who has become active in cancer fundraising since being diagnosed with leukemia two years ago, received the team's community service award, while senior linebacker Mike Rallis was honored with the Neil Fredenburg Award for "the most courage and love of the game."
Quarterback Philip Nelson and tailback Rodrick Williams shared the award for best freshman on offense, while defensive tackle Scott Epke was the top freshman on defense.
Also honored at the season-ending banquet:
Offensive Lineman of the Year – Zac Epping
Offensive Back of the Year – Donnell Kirkwood
Wide Receiver of the Year – Isaac Fruechte
Defensive Lineman of the Year – D.L. Wilhite
Linebacker of the Year – Mike Rallis
Defensive Back of the Year – Michael Carter
Offensive Work Team Player of the Year – Cole Banham and Mitch Leidner
Defensive Work Team Player of the Year – Matt Garin and Jack Lynn
Da'Jon McKnight will get to play in a bowl game after all.
The Gophers' senior receiver has accepted an invitation to take part in the NFLPA Bowl later this month in Carson, Calif., an all-star event organized by the NFL's players association.
The game is supposed to showcase potential draftees in front of NFL teams, but in a weird twist, there may be no NFL scouts at the game. The league has banned scouts from the game due to a dispute over whether underclassmen who have renounced their NCAA eligibility should be allowed to take part.
Still, it's a good opportunity for McKnight, the Gophers' leading receiver each of the past two seasons. The coaches for the game, to be held Jan. 21 at the Home Depot Center just outside Los Angeles, are Dick Vermeil and Tom Flores, each of whom has won a Super Bowl.
McKnight, a native of Dallas, graduated with 119 career catches, including 51 last season, for 1,649 yards and 15 touchdowns.
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