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.
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Before Jerry Kill had Jordan Lynch and Mitch Leidner, he had Mark Smith.
The lineage of Kill’s strong running quarterbacks really stretches back to his first head coaching job, at Webb City (Mo.) High School.
Smith was in eighth grade and didn’t even play football when Kill arrived as Webb City’s new coach in 1988.
“I thought I was heading to the NBA,” Smith said Saturday, after watching a Gophers spring practice. “Coach Kill talked to me, and he told me I was going to play quarterback, and I was like, OK.”
Webb City had a decent football program, good enough to win a conference title here and there but never a state championship.
“Coach Kill got to town, and he went to all the schools and wanted any male student to at least come and listen to him talk about the program,” Smith said. “I remember thinking, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’
“He looks like he did then, only he had a little bit thicker hair and glasses. But he came in there, he had the chubby old finger sticking up there, telling everybody how great football was going to be. He said, ‘Just give them the opportunity, people will get so excited, they’ll be throwing babies in the aisle.’”
In the fall of 1988, Smith played linebacker as a freshman under Kill as Webb City went 11-1. The next year, Smith played quarterback, and the team went 14-0, winning Missouri’s 4A State Championship.
There’s a fantastic highlight video from that season, featuring an interview with Kill, who sounded the same as he does now, talking behind those huge glasses. Smith looked like a man among boys, even as a sophomore.
Kill left the following year to become the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh (Kan.) State. Smith eventually went to Arkansas, where he played four years and became an All-SEC linebacker. He also played two seasons with the Chiefs.
These days, Smith still lives in Southwest Missouri and works as a regional insulin salesman for Norvo Nordisk.
“I mean 25 years later, I still remember [Kill’s coaching],” Smith said. “He talked about the mental aspect of the game, being able to handle adversity. That’s a blue-collar town anyway. The kids were all close, and he just kind of tied it all together and told us to go.
“It was one of those deals that kids are looking for a leader, and for some unknown reason Coach Kill showed up in Webb City.”
For Smith’s 40th birthday, his wife surprised him with a trip to go visit Jerry and Rebecca Kill in Minnesota. Smith is staying at their house this weekend.
“It’s the best present I’ve ever gotten,” Smith said. “It’s been 25 years, and he’s a head coach at a Division I school. My wife calls him up, and he opens up his home to me,” Smith said. “That tells you what kind of person he is.”
Gophers coaches have dropped big hints in recent days that at least two defensive linemen could play this fall – as true freshmen.
The Gophers need to replace two defensive tackles – potential first-round draft pick Ra’Shede Hageman and Roland Johnson, who was a key reserve.
Senior Cameron Botticelli is back as a starter, and junior Scott Ekpe should slide in next to him. The Gophers like to rotate at least four defensive tackles, so depth is critical. Sophomore Yoshoub Timms will see more playing time once his hamstring injury heals, and redshirt Demarius Peppers is progressing, too.
But the Gophers also have two defensive tackles coming this summer in Steven Richardson, from Chicago Mt. Carmel, and Gary Moore from Mobile, Ala.
“I’m going to tell you straight up that Roland and Ra’Shede -- pound for pound -- were our strongest people in the middle, and replacing them isn’t going to be easy,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said last week. “But at the same time, you’ve got two kids in there who took just as many reps and played awfully well and just didn’t get the publicity in Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe.
“They will hold us up in the middle fine, and we’re going to have to rely on Shoobee Timms and Steven Richardson and Gary Moore and some of those kids to give us the depth in there. We redshirted Demarius Peppers, and I feel good about where that’s at.
“So there’s going to be some names in there that people haven’t heard of, and they’re going to be younger, but I feel like we cannot lose ground up front.”
Richardson is listed at just 6-foot tall, but he was 285 pounds, and the Gophers were ecstatic to get him. On National Signing Day, Coach Jerry Kill compared Richardson to Pittsburgh’s All-American Aaron Donald.
“Steve can run 4.7,” Kill said, of the scouting report he received from Mt. Carmel coach Frank Lenti. “And again, I’m going to believe it because he was at Mt. Carmel, and the last player I got out of Mt. Carmel – Jordan Lynch.
“Frank doesn’t tell you this is a guy unless he’s the guy, and this kid benches something like 400 pounds and runs 4.7.”
Moore also had some impressive measurables coming out of Murphy High School in Mobile, Ala. He’s 6-4, 285 pounds yet can reportedly squat 680 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds.
The Gophers also have two defensive ends coming this fall in Owatonna’s Aaron Stelter, and Julien Kafo, from the Montreal area.
“We’re bringing in four freshmen defensive linemen, and I think two of them will play, maybe three,” Kill said Thursday. “They’re talented. They’re all ready. One of them benches 400-something pounds, runs a 4.7, so I mean that’s going to create depth.”
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.”
The Gophers announced their spring practice schedule today. All practices are open to the public again this year. Dates, times and places subject to change, but here goes:
March 4, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 6, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 8, 11:20 a.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 9, 11:20 a.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 11, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 13, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 25, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 27, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
March 29, 11:20 a.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 1, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 3, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 5, 11:20 a.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 8, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 11, 4 p.m. – Practice, Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
April 12, 1:30 p.m. – Spring Game, TCF Bank Stadium
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