I have been reading preseason college football magazines for longer than I care to remember. I am always excited about their arrival in stores, although it seems like a lot of the same storylines surface annually. Hint to Goldy Gopher: no Big Ten titles since 1967.
Years ago the magazines hit the newsstands in August but now the preseason publications arrive a few weeks before the official start of summer. Maybe you spend a spring weekend breaking your back in the garden but I dedicate a few days devouring college football news from coast-to-coast. I’ve been doing it since Saturday’s heroes posed for covers wearing helmets without facemasks.
These days the magazines hit town and deliver “sticker shock.” I bought three magazines and swallowed hard when the cashier said the total was over $31. I do confess to only paying $13 after using a Barnes & Noble gift card, and receiving a loyalty discount from the retailer.
I am not sure you want to hear me complain about the cost. Certain things are best kept private, which reminds me of the “wisdom” of former Golden Gopher football coach Lou Holtz. He advises those who complain about aches and pain to think twice before sharing their woes with others. Holtz says 90 percent of those you complain to really don’t care, while the other 10 percent are happy you’re hurting!
The three magazines—the Athlon and Lindy’s Big Ten preview publications, and Athlon’s national outlook magazine—are not doing celebratory backflips over the Golden Gophers who were 2-7 in Big Ten games last season and have some attributes missing on their resume including no experience at the quarterback position.
The publications aren’t holding back their concerns about Minnesota. “It doesn’t make any difference how fast you row the boat if it has holes in it. And this boat has many leaks,” writes Lindy’s.
Both Athlon and Lindy’s see Minnesota as the sixth best team in the Big Ten’s seven-team West Division. Athlon predicts the Gophers’ overall record will be 6-6 and 3-6 in Big Ten games. For the postseason Athlon says Minnesota will play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas.
Lindy’s ranks the Gophers running backs (because of Rodney Smith) No. 6 in the 14-team Big Ten. The linebackers are ranked No. 7. Minnesota lands at No. 12 in the quarterbacks, receivers, offensive line and specialists categories. The defensive line is No. 11 and the secondary No. 13.
I know my readers like good news so let me intervene here with a thought to boost morale. The schedule could allow the Gophers—whose strength figures to be on defense—to start fast. Nonconference games (all at home) against New Mexico State, Fresno State and Miami (Ohio) should provide a 3-0 start. Then comes the Big Ten opener at Maryland and the Terps are trying to rebuild just like Goldy.
A 4-0 start is possible before the Gophers host Iowa on October 6. Minnesota may not reclaim the pig but at least should go into the game with confidence, a winning early season record and the incentive of playing in front of what almost for sure will be the largest home crowd of the year.
After that the schedule is mostly formidable, and at times nasty. Even Tony Robbins would struggle to find a silver lining in road mismatches at Ohio State and Wisconsin. Tony, though, could point to potentially winnable games including against lowly Illinois. Another smiley thought is Minnesota avoids three of the Big Ten East’s beasts with Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State not on the schedule.
If the Gophers are to achieve a winning season they will need many breakout performances from individual players, particularly on offense. The list starts with redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan at football’s most important position, quarterback. He’s an unknown, just like four-star freshman wide receiver Rashod Bateman who can give the offense a big lift if he is as effective as hyped. Senior tackle Donnell Greene’s name is mentioned as a potential NFL Draft choice and he could be a difference maker on an offensive line that is suspect.
Minnesota has a short list of highly regarded players the magazines include on their second and third team All-Big Ten selections. Running back Smith (already referenced above) made Lindys’ second team. Athlon placed Smith on its second team offense as an all-purpose player, and also made four Gophers third team selections on either defense or offense: linebacker Thomas Barber, defensive end Carter Coughlin, wide receiver Tyler Johnson, and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. If those five can be even better than anticipated, Minnesota increases its chances for a surprise season.
It’s interesting that all of the players except Smith are from the state of Minnesota. Also included on preseason Big Ten honor teams are two other Minnesota natives, and they both played high school football at Eden Prairie. Linebacker Ryan Connelly is one of nationally ranked Wisconsin’s best players, while wide receiver and kickoff returner J.D. Spielman is a constant scoring threat for Nebraska.
Gophers’ second-year coach P.J. Fleck can’t fix his boat with only players from the state of Minnesota but better recruiting in Minnesota and Wisconsin is a must. FCS powerhouse North Dakota State has built its program mostly with Upper Midwest players including a boatload from Minnesota and Wisconsin. As for the Badgers, they have taken over the Big Ten’s West Division and become a national playoff contender with a formula that includes a thundering herd of offensive linemen—mostly from the state of Wisconsin.
Like it or not, expect to hear more in 2018 from Fleck about his culture and process in building his program after last year’s 5-7 record that followed a 9-4 in 2016. The 37-year-old, who was 1-11 his first year coaching at Western Michigan and 8-5 in his second, usually has plenty to say as Athlon noted in an anonymous quote from a coach at another school.
“I know P.J. Fleck rubs some people the wrong way with that rah-rah stuff, but it’s genuine,” the coach said. “He’s a positive energy, positive thoughts guy.”
That quote was among the first words I read after I bought my magazines. In the days ahead I will read the publications cover-to-cover including the (yawn) anticipated national successes of the Alabamas, Clemsons, Georgias, Ohio States and Wisconsins. I will wince at six-time national champion Minnesota being ranked No. 73 in the country by Athlon—just behind No. 72 Arkansas State! And, yes, I will even look forward to purchasing three or four college football magazines again next year.
I better start saving up. How soon will there be a $12 college football magazine in my future?
Make a quick Google search about Kirk Cousins and include the word “nerdy.” Then read things like “Kirk Cousins is absolutely, positively every bit the nerd-dork-dweeb that he seems.”
That quote is from Steelernationforums.com last November, but online stories from Sports Illustrated and USA Today have also put the nerd and dork tag on the Vikings’ new quarterback who signed a guaranteed three-year $84 million deal during the offseason to leave the Redskins and come to Minnesota. Realclearlife.com wrote Cousins is nerdy because he and his wife stayed with in-laws to save money in the offseason. He is supposed to be frugal, obsessive and a theater geek.
Cousins’ new teammates, after practicing with him for the first time this spring as part of OTAs, told Sports Headliners their quarterback is personality-plus. “In the locker room he might be a little dorky but out here he is a fiery competitor,” said offensive lineman Nick Easton.
Backup quarterback Kyle Sloter lives in Atlanta during the offseason, the same place where Cousins spent time earlier this year. The two got acquainted in Atlanta and even more now as teammates. Sloter said at the appropriate moment on or off the field Cousins might shout out a movie quote from a film like “Happy Gilmore,” or “Dumb and Dumber.”
“I wouldn’t say that he is a nerd or a dork,” Sloter said. “He talks about ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and ‘Star Wars,’ and those kinds of things. He embraces it. That’s just really his personality. He’s a funny guy. He brings a little comic relief into our quarterback room but he knows when it’s time to be serious and all that good stuff.”
Vikings’ wide receiver Adam Thielen, who likes the personality of his quarterback, said Cousins knows every movie quote. “You couldn’t ask for a better person as a leader than a guy that likes to have fun and loves the game of football,” Thielen said.
Sloter already admires Cousins. “He’s a really genuine guy,” Sloter said. “Everybody loves the leadership that he brings. He’s a real sparkplug kind of guy so it’s been fun for me to really get in there and learn. …”
Former Viking Bob Lurtsema was initially opposed to his old team signing Cousins but he is impressed and open-minded now, describing the 29-year-old quarterback as “a class act.” Lurtsema has listened to Cousins talk and studied his background of being a late developer at Michigan State. That maturation of Cousins indicates attitude and work ethic to Lurtsema.
“This sounds terrible (but) he reminds me so much of myself,” Lurtsema said. “I was a terrible athlete but I gave you what I had cause you never know when you’re going to mature as an athlete. You might mature as a freshman in high school, a sophomore in college. You never know. Everybody is different. But if you keep giving it your best—when opportunity comes along you’re ready for it. …He (Cousins) directed himself (that way).”
Cousins didn’t come to Michigan State or join the Redskins as a star; he was a fourth round draft choice. During his six years with the Redskins he struggled a lot to win games against teams with winning records. Teams he quarterbacked lost more games than they won and he was 0-1 in the playoffs. Cousins, though, was statistically impressive and the Vikings must believe he is not only a talented quarterback but one in his prime years, and now surrounded by much better personnel than he had with the Redskins.
Lurtsema was dubious in February about Cousins and back then questioned the free agent quarterback’s leadership. Whether Cousins is nerdy or not, Lurtsema is rethinking him. “I want to be 100 percent wrong on what I said originally,” Lurtsema said. “I want to be 100 percent right on what I just told you now.”
No. 2 quarterback Trevor Siemian, like Cousins, is in his first OTAs with the Vikings and getting ready for an initial season in Minnesota. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Siemian is “not an overly outgoing guy, but he takes charge in the huddle.”
Siemian is in his fourth NFL year and Zimmer said the quarterback is adapting to the Vikings’ offensive system. “He’s a guy that, obviously, has had a lot of experience,” Zimmer said. “ I think he’s catching on (to) the system well. It’s a completely different system for him. He’s been throwing the ball good. He’s got good command of the offense so far.”
Condolences to family and friends of Keith Fahnhorst who passed away this week. The St. Cloud native was an outstanding football player for the Golden Gophers and NFL 49ers.
Don’t think that Quinn Carroll, the Edina four-star offensive tackle who has verbally committed to Notre Dame, didn’t notice that the Fighting Irish had two offensive tackles taken among the first 10 selections in the first round of this spring’s NFL Draft.
If a Twins fan had a one hour commute in each direction to attend last Saturday’s Twins-Angels game at Target Field and stayed for the four hour rain delay and near three-hour ballgame, the total investment in time was about nine hours.
The actual game time was two hours and 53 minutes—one of two Twins games last week to be played in under three hours.
Gopher baseball coach John Anderson receives a well-deserved $15,000 bonus for leading his team to the NCAA Super Regional played last week in Corvallis, Oregon.
A Tuesday notes column:
Catcher is the position where the Twins, currently with a 28-34 record, have their biggest need. The position is unsettled on the franchise’s major league roster, and in the minor league system the talent is thin. It wouldn’t be surprising if front office decision makers Derek Falvey and Thad Levine announce a trade this month involving a catcher, or acquiring a player at another position who can help the struggling offense.
Only seven of 30 MLB teams have scored fewer runs than the Twins. Minnesota is 3-13 in one-run games, and 17-26 in games decided by two runs or less.
Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto might be available. The 27-year-old is hitting .301 and is a rising star. Miami is a bad team, struggling to draw fans and has a front office that can be unpredictable.
Falvey and Levine possess some trade pieces that could be attractive to other clubs including 30-year-old starting pitcher Kyle Gibson. Despite a 1-4 record and an inconsistent career path, Gibson this season has held opponents to two or fewer runs eight times. Gibson could be expendable because the Twins have depth in their starting rotation and quality prospects in the minor leagues.
The Twins also have numbers in middle infielders and that could mean minor league prospects and veterans Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar are likely to come up in trade talks. Both are free agents after this season.
The 31-year-old Dozier, who led the Twins in home runs the last two seasons, is struggling this year with a .239 batting average. The 29-year-old Escobar, though, is hitting a career high .289 that also includes 12 home runs, three more than Dozier. The Twins could be more likely to retain Escobar because he can play three infield positions and figures to command less money as a free agent than Dozier.
Rob Fornasiere’s last day as Golden Gophers assistant head baseball coach is July 2. The 62-year-old Fornasiere is retiring from his position at Minnesota and is unsure of future plans. For now he “will take a deep breath.”
Fornasiere is paid $79,000 annually at Minnesota and he has supplemented his income with baseball camps. Fornasiere said he and his wife Ruth have worked with a financial planner and “prepared for over 20 years” for retirement, leaving the couple confident they can maintain a lifestyle they are comfortable with.
Who will succeed the popular and admired assistant who has coached 33 years at Minnesota? Fornasiere doesn’t know but he praised former Gopher Dan Wilson when asked about him. “In my 39 years as a college coach, he is the greatest kid I ever met,” Fornasiere said.
Wilson works for the Mariners where his responsibilities include scouting and it’s not publicly known whether he would have an interest in coming to Minnesota. His son Eli is a catcher with the Gophers who has proven to be a productive leader and player. Minnesota went 33-7 when Wilson was the regular catcher.
Fornasiere couldn’t have asked for a better last season with the Gopher program. Minnesota won Big Ten regular season and conference tournament championships. For the first time ever during Fornasiere’s tenure with head coach John Anderson the Gophers were able to win an NCAA regional tournament.
The dream run ended last weekend in the Super Regional against an Oregon State team with better talent and playing on its home field. Fornasiere thinks the Beavers might win the NCAA title and “arguably has” the best pitcher in the country in Luke Heimlich, 16-1. He was outstanding in a Beaver win Friday night, striking out nine Gophers in 8.2 innings.
Jim Carter, who has been a close observer of the issues that led to the lawsuit by former and current Gopher football players against the University of Minnesota, said the two sides failed to reach a settlement before the lawsuit was filed. Carter, a former Gopher football captain in the late 1960s and loyal supporter of the program under ex-head coaches Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys, said the nine players are seeking $45 million in damages, or about $5 million per player.
Carter predicted it could be a “couple of years” before the lawsuit is tried in federal court before a jury. The players allege they were the victims of racial and gender discrimination involving a 2016 incident.
Jirehl Brock, the four-star running back from Quincy, Illinois, visited the U over the weekend and spent time with No. 1 Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan, according to recruiting authority Ryan Burns from GopherIllustrated. Burns told Sports Headliners Brock will make a seventh visit to Iowa June 22, and then a decision regarding his college choice is expected by month’s end.
Burns said Vic Viramontes decided to give up on his future as a quarterback after not meeting his expectations this spring. Viramontes wants to play linebacker and decided not to try that position at Minnesota because of the competition for playing time, opting instead to gain experience this fall in junior college, according to Burns.
Viramontes’ departure leaves the Gophers with one scholarship quarterback in redshirt freshman Morgan who has never played in a college game. That’s not only an unusual situation but a precarious one if Morgan is injured. True freshman Zack Annexstad is the backup and Burns said tight end Seth Green will be an emergency back up at the position.
The Vikings have their third offensive coordinator in two years and veteran defensive end Brian Robison sees the benefit of that for his unit. “The things that they’re doing, it kind of has changed from year to year,” Robison said. “It kind of allows us to see a broad spectrum of plays and a broad spectrum of the way the offense likes to do things. For us that keeps us on our toes and it’s kind of ever evolving as far as our learning process.”
Some NFL authorities see the Packers, with injured Aaron Rodgers recovered, as more likely to win the 2018 NFC North title than the defending champion Vikings. But Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen said he is focused on spring work at OTAs and hasn’t heard the word. “Oh, yeah, I haven’t even noticed,” he told Sports Headliners. “I haven’t heard anything about it.”
Thielen, a Minnesota native, enjoyed talking with Gophers coach P.J. Fleck at OTAs last week. “I got a ton of respect for him and what he’s doing with that program, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what they’re going to do in the future,” Thielen said.
Ross Miller defeated Robert Bell and Don Berry in a playoff to win the 47th Tapemark Charity Pro-Am at Southview Country Club last weekend. Jeff Sorenson finished two strokes behind the leaders. Sorenson shot a course record 62 this spring to win a tournament at Redwood Falls Golf Club.
Ex-Cretin-Derham Hall and University of St. Thomas basketball guard Sean Sweeney, who has been on the NBA Bucks staff since 2014, will remain an assistant under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. Sweeney is valued for his defensive expertise and relationship with superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story last Friday described the two as “virtually inseparable.”