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.

Gophers make Croney a late addition to 2014 recruiting class

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gopher recruiting Updated: March 31, 2014 - 6:58 PM

It's been more than seven weeks since National Signing Day, but the Gophers just added another member to their 2014 recruiting class. Ra'Shaun Croney, a defensive back from Pahokee, Fla., faxed his national letter of intent to Minnesota today, the Star Tribune has confirmed.

Croney, who is rated as a three-star recruit in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, becomes the 21st member of this year's Gophers recruiting class. He had offers from South Carolina and Arkansas, but those schools backed off when it looked like he wouldn't qualify academically.

He signed with Ellsworth (Iowa) Community College, but his grades have been on the rise, so the Gophers invited him in for an official visit last weekend. They were hoping to get one more defensive back for this class to go along with Craig James, and now they have him.

Gophers linebacker Cody Poock has a torn ACL

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gophers injuries Updated: March 31, 2014 - 1:57 PM

Gophers linebacker Cody Poock has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, a person familiar with his injury said Monday.

The team was finalizing the diagnosis, with Coach Jerry Kill expected to address the injury with the media after Tuesday’s practice.

Poock suffered the injury at Saturday's practice. On Sunday, he posted on his Twitter page (@codyallenpoock), “Everything happens for a reason.”

It’s a tough blow for the Gophers, as Poock had been playing with the first-team defense, alongside linebackers Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell.

Poock is expected to have surgery soon, and his ability to return this fall will depend on how he heals. Last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan suffered a torn ACL injury in spring practice. He had surgery March 28 and was back playing again for the Wolverines on Oct. 12.

Gophers cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun tore his ACL in the season’s second game last year (Sept. 7 at New Mexico State) and he already has seen time in 11-on-11 drills this spring.

Poock still has three years of eligibility remaining after transferring from Iowa Western Community College. He had the grades to play Division I coming out of Spirit Lake High School last year but didn’t get the offers he wanted, so he went the junior college route.

He made 80 tackles for an 11-1 Iowa Western team and picked Minnesota over TCU. This spring, he quickly emerged as the leading candidate to replace departing senior Aaron Hill at strong-side linebacker.

Nick Rallis, a redshirt sophomore from Edina, filled in for Poock with the first-team defense for the rest of Saturday’s practice. The Gophers have been pleased with Ray Dixon’s play with the second-team defense, making him another candidate to replace Poock.

With Wilson entrenched at middle-linebacker for one more year, it’s also possible the Gophers could move his backup, Jack Lynn, to an outside spot this fall.

Wolitarsky standing out at receiver for Gophers

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gophers spring football Updated: March 28, 2014 - 12:30 PM

Drew Wolitarsky quickly emerged as a go-to receiver for the Gophers last fall as a true freshman, and his growth continues to show this spring.

Wolitarsky made two impressive plays in Tuesday's practice, turning one pass from Mitch Leidner on a slant pattern into a long gain. Moments later, the 6-3 Wolitarsky made a diving catch. He added another diving catch Thursday on a pass from Conor Rhoda, giving that unit a key third-down conversion.

At moments like that, you're reminded that Wolitarsky is California's all-time high school leader in career receptions (281) and receiving yardage (5,148).

"Drew’s had a great spring so far," Coach Jerry Kill said. "You don’t realize he’s 225 pounds and a very storng kid. As you play as a freshman, it’s a learning curve, but you build some confidence up, and he’s a really, really good football player."

Note: The Gophers will hold Spring Practice No. 8 on Saturday at 11:20 a.m., in the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. All spring practices are open to the public.

Rodrick Williams looks like a man on a mission this spring

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gophers spring football Updated: March 26, 2014 - 2:32 PM

Chip Scoggins came to practice Tuesday, and I promised him he’d see something electrifying from Berkley Edwards. I was convinced Edwards was good for at least one of these moments per day after watching the first five spring practices.

Alas, Edwards didn’t break a long one this time, but Rodrick Williams burst through the line at one point and darted for the sideline on a long run. Slowed by a turf toe injury last fall, he’s definitely running better this spring and looks like he’s on a mission.

On March 8, the 5-11, 235-pound Williams ran right over linebacker Cody Poock on a run, then shouted at the defense, “Give me somebody who wants to hit!”

On the next play, Williams had an excellent block in pass protection and drew immediate praise from Coach Jerry Kill. Blocking was a real weakness for Williams in 2012 as a freshman, so he’s come a long way.

“Competition makes everybody get after it, that’s for sure,” Kill said, noting that the battle for playing time is especially fierce at running back.

David Cobb is coming off a 1,200-yard season. Edwards -- while only 5-9, 190 pounds -- looks like something entirely new and dynamic for the offense. And Donnell Kirkwood is running much better after spraining his ankle in last year’s season opener. Don’t forget: Kirkwood led this team with 926 rushing yards just two seasons ago.

And then there’s incoming freshman Jeff Jones – the program’s highest rated recruit in ages.

Cobb and Kirkwood are seniors this fall, but between Edwards, Jones and Williams, the team’s running game appears to be in good hands for the foreseeable future.

Northwestern's new football facility will push Gophers even further behind

Posted by: Joe Christensen under College football, TCF Bank Stadium Updated: March 14, 2014 - 10:46 AM

The Gophers just fell another step behind in college football's arms race. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Northwestern has received the green light to build "the multipurpose lakefront facility that football coach Pat Fitzgerald says will be a 'game-changer' for his program."

From the story:

Donations have poured in despite the Wildcats' 5-7 record last season. Sources said construction of the two-building complex will begin by early 2015 and should take about two years to complete.

The school will announce Friday, the Tribune has learned, that it is launching a new fundraising campaign and that Mark and Kimbra Walter have donated $40 million to be used for athletics and law school scholarships. Mark Walter, a graduate of NU's law school, is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

NU officials have been tight-lipped since unveiling plans for the project in September 2012. The price tag for the facility on the shore of Lake Michigan is likely to exceed the original estimate of $220 million.

This project was first announced in September 2012, but there are new renderings, and quite frankly, they are stunning. The Chicago Tribune reports that the cost likely will exceed the original $220 million estimate.

Last July, Gophers AD Norwood Teague unveiled a $190 million plan to drastically upgrade the school's athletic facilities, including new practice facilities for the football and basketball teams. Teague has since said that the school is close to announcing the results of a fundraising feasibility study, and he keeps saying he feels good about it. But it's been relatively quiet.

ESPN commentator Dan Dakich, a former Bowling Green coach and interim head coach at Indiana, said on Thursday’s broadcast of the Gophers-Penn State game that Minnesota can’t afford not to build a facility. Dakich called Minnesota high school basketball the nation’s best-kept secret, and said there “are Minnesota kids all over Division I.’’ Dakich said if Minnesota finally builds a practice facility comparable to other Big Ten schools and starts keeping top in-state kids at home, the basketball program could take off.

Last December, the Big Ten Network's Gerry DiNardo held nothing back in his assessment of Minnesota's football facilities. Here's an excerpt from that story:

DiNardo tours the entire Big Ten twice each year — during spring practice and preseason camp — giving him a firsthand look at what the Gophers have compared with their competition.

“You can make a case that they’re 12th of 12 [teams] when it comes to resources in the conference,” DiNardo said. “Facilitieswise, it’s not even close.”

By that, DiNardo means the indoor practice facility, weight room and nutrition areas. He said it’s nice for Minnesota fans to have 5-year-old TCF Bank Stadium but notes that players spend about 10 days per year there, counting spring practice. They spend almost every other day on campus in the training facilities, and those aren’t helping recruiting, DiNardo said.

“A prospect wants to know where he’s going to go every day,” DiNardo said. “Training table, for example: I often see at Minnesota they eat in the hallway, and it’s food with Bunsen burners underneath.”

The Gophers do indeed hold their training table with catered meals inside the entryway to the Gibson/Nagurski Practice Facility. It’s a high-ceilinged room filled with Gophers memorabilia — a nice place to visit, but hardly a dining room.

“When [recruits] go to Nebraska, by way of example, when you walk into their training table, it looks like a restaurant,” DiNardo said. “I mean, it is decked out. Wisconsin just built brand new facilities. They have juice bars — it’s a kitchen, it’s a restaurant.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Fitzgerald had this to say on National Signing Day:

"A lot of other universities have made the decision just to do the stadium. We've put the priority on student-athletes with a 365-day facility. We already have everything we need to win, but now we'll be able to compete facility-wise with anyone in the country."

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