A Thursday Gophers notes column.
P.J. Fleck will soon announce his starting quarterback but the drama associated with the position could last all season. The new Gophers coach has gone through spring practices, the summer break, and now a couple weeks of practices leading up to the opening game August 31 without naming a starter.
Fleck is choosing between redshirt senior Conor Rhoda and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft. Rhoda is a former walk-on now on scholarship who has started one game with the Gophers, a win at Maryland last fall. Croft has no starts and played minimal minutes behind former starter Mitch Leidner who has graduated.
Based on past experience and reputation, neither player rates high with media who cover Big Ten Conference football. In its Big Ten football issue, Athlon Sports magazine ranks the Minnesota quarterback group or unit No. 13—ahead of only Rutgers in the 14-team league. Lindy’s in its college football publication wrote: “The options at quarterback lack experience and could be a season-long drag on the offense.”
Fleck, of course, is being positive. “What I love about both of them (Croft and Rhoda), is they’re both getting better,” he said after practice on Tuesday. “It hasn’t been an easy decision to say this guy has won the job, because they’re both playing at a high level.”
Fleck and his staff will implement details for the Buffalo game with players next week in preparation for the opener at TCF Bank Stadium. “I am not going to wait much longer,” Fleck said regarding the quarterback decision.
No doubt, though, whoever is named the starter for Buffalo won’t receive a guarantee to play quarterback for 12 games. Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca know performance may dictate change—perhaps even more than once.
Before training camp started on August 1, probably no one guessed that among the players Fleck would praise the most halfway through practices are junior redshirt defensive tackle Gary Moore and freshman wide receiver Demetrius Douglas. Moore only played in four games and had two tackles last season but is now among Minnesota’s better defensive linemen. Douglas, the son of former Gophers receiver Omar Douglas, might already be the team’s best wide out after sophomore Tyler Johnson.
The Gophers impressed with their defense during the Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys era from 2011-2016. Minnesota’s shutdown of pass crazy Washington State in the Holiday Bowl last December was one of the best defensive performances by Minnesota in a long while, but soon after the 17-12 win Claeys, who had been the defensive coordinator under Kill, was fired as head coach. It would have been understandable if the defensive players were anxious about the prospect of new leadership but senior linebacker Jonathan Celestin remembers taking a calm approach as he reached out to all his teammates after hearing about Claeys and the possibility that many or all of his assistants wouldn’t be retained.
“We (the players) were all at home and I made sure I texted everybody that (they should) have an open mind, no matter what happens,” Celestin said on Tuesday. “We’re still—at the end of the day—11 players on the field, offense, defense, special teams. Coaches won’t be out here with us on the field, no matter what.
“…I am sure (new) coach Smith will put us in the right position, but at the end of the day we have to execute. I just made sure that everybody was on the same page and had an open mind (when he texted to teammates).”
Celestin is impressed with the systems approach of new Gophers defensive coordinator Robb Smith and being able to disguise things with opponents. “He is very creative,” Celestin said. “He loves third down, I will tell you that. He knows how to make everything look the same, and you really won’t know what’s coming at you. You do a lot of crazy things on defense, I will tell you that.”
Gophers’ sophomore linebacker Thomas Barber is developing a reputation among teammates for physical play. “That’s always been part of my game,” said the former Robbinsdale Armstrong player.
Celestin is known as “Thumper” for his hard hitting. He’s impressed with Barber for his physical play—and more. “He can definitely help the team out a lot,” Celestin said. “Thomas has grown a lot over these past couple of months—seeing him develop into actually a leader vocally on the field. He’s trying to call plays out with me, and he can really get into the film room (for study).”
Barber’s older brothers, Dom and Marion III, both played for the Gophers and have emphasized the importance of stretching. They told Thomas to take care of his body now because “it benefits you in the future too.”
Sophomore linebacker and defensive end Carter Coughlin played at just 214 pounds last season. “But this year I am 228 and I am about to hit 230, and that’s my goal,” the 6-4 Coughlin said.
Coughlin will sometimes be positioned on the line of scrimmage, and strength is needed there to face bigger blockers than he may see at linebacker. Before Coughlin’s college career is complete, he wants to add as much as 15 pounds—with the caveat he doesn’t want to lose his signature speed. “If I am fast then, I’ll even try to get up higher (in weight),” said the former Eden Prairie High School All-American.
Playing part-time last season, Coughlin had two sacks. “Without a question, there is nothing better than getting a sack. Absolutely,” he said.
Coughlin ranks Celestin, Barber and senior redshirt defensive back Duke McGhee as three of the hardest hitting players on the Minnesota defense. “He is the highest out of the underclassmen—without a question,” Coughlin said of Barber.
True freshman tackle Blaise Andries, from Marshall, Minnesota, has been receiving reps with the first team offense. “People don’t understand how hard it is to play offensive line as a freshman,” said redshirt junior starting center Jared Weyler. “There’s not many that do it. The fact that he’s matured enough to take reps with the first team, I am really, really happy for him. He’s going to continue to develop.”
Weyler had limited game experience last season at center, playing more at guard. The difference in the two positions includes having the other’s team’s nose guard only about two inches away from the center, and things happen faster than at guard.
Weyler said he’s fortunate to practice against Minnesota senior Steven Richardson, who is among the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten. “…He’s probably one of the best noses in the country,” Weyler said. “The fact that I get to work with him each and every day, that’s really, really helped my progress too.”
Condolences to families and friends following the recent deaths of former Gophers defensive linemen Ron Kamzelski and Keith Simons. Kamzelski was second team All-Big Ten in 1968, while Simons made first-team All-Big Ten in 1974.
Still no opponent and specific date determined yet for the Gophers basketball game in December of 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium, but details will be finalized soon.
A Tuesday notes column beginning with the Vikings.
The Vikings have their second of four preseason games Friday night at Seattle against the Seahawks. Traditionally, teams play their starters the most in the third exhibition game, which this year is August 27 at U.S. Bank Stadium against the 49ers. “Honestly, I am really weighing that a lot,” Mike Zimmer said this morning about how much to use his regulars in game three and before the season starts.
In the third game starters often play the entire first half and even part of the third quarter. What gives the Vikings head coach pause is potential injuries. He knows the capabilities of many regulars and wants to protect their bodies in the preseason, but he also needs to know they are in game shape for the season opener September 11 against the Saints in Minneapolis.
Zimmer said he’s competitive and wants to win at just about anything but he also has perspective on the preseason and sees it as a time to teach and evaluate. “We know what the record is but we don’t really go out of our way to win,” he said.
Is four the right number of preseason gam? “Yeah, I don’t have a problem,” Zimmer said. “Preseason is a lot less stressful to me. I am not as nervous on gamedays.”
The performance of the offensive line, with some new personnel and presumably good health, might have more to do with determining the success of the 2016 season than any other unit. Last year was a dark time for the group, with too many injuries and shuffling players in and out. The Vikings had a disappointing 8-8 record and third place finish in the NFC North.
Guard Alex Boone, who started 14 games last season, said the line will be improved. Despite injuries, players trying out at different spots and Zimmer still sorting out who his starting five during training camp will be, Boone believes the offensive line will be better.
Boone added, the “biggest thing is getting continuity—you have so many new guys in there and guys are kind of getting shuffled around.” By the opening game next month the goal is to have a unit where everyone is on the same page with how they approach assignments and react.
“Sometimes guys are stubborn,” Boone said. “I am stubborn sometimes. I don’t want to do things everybody else’s way. At the end of the day you gotta look at it as a collective (goal) and say, ‘Is this good for the group?’
“Right now I don’ t think we have any problems with anything. Everybody is kind of on the same board. It’s really getting footwork together and jelling together. How do you see this? How do you see that? How do you want this set? Every day we’re taking steps to get better—and that’s the key to this camp and that’s the key to this league. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be all right.”
Boone is one of the more interesting and even entertaining Vikings to interview. During the offseason he and his wife Dana took their three young children on a driving trip in a 50-foot RV. They drove from Minneapolis to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, down to Ohio and back to Minnesota.
“It was the greatest time of my life,” Boone said. “I had so much driving for like 18 hours straight.”
Did the kids bother him? “They had an amazing time in the back, just breaking everything. Awesome.”
There’s an assumption that rookie Dalvin Cook will be the starting running back for the Vikings, replacing future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. While that’s likely to be true, Jerick McKinnon, with three years of experience and a reputation as one of the NFL’s more effective pass receivers in the backfield, wants more than a third down role for himself.
“…That’s what it’s all about. If you’re not here to compete, then I don’t know why you’re here,” McKinnon said.
Moritz Bohringer, the 23-year-old German native and wide receiver who is trying to make the Vikings gameday roster after spending last year on the practice team, has only been playing American football since 2013. Playing for teams in Germany for three seasons and 40 games, he caught 164 passes for 4,327 yards, averaging 26.4 yards per reception and scoring 57 receiving touchdowns.
The Gophers have football practices open to the public Tuesday (today) and Thursday at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. Both practices begin at 3:30 p.m.
Trevor Hildenberger, the Twins rookie side-armer who got his first Major League save on Sunday in a win over the Tigers, has a 1.57 career ERA in four seasons as a relief pitcher in the minors. Drafted by the Twins in the 23rd round in 2014, the right-handed Hildenberger was even a relief specialist in college where he tied a Cal-Berkley school record with 10 saves in a season.
The Twins are 5-8 so far this season against the Indians, the team they trail by five games in the American League Central Division. With three games this week at Target Field against the Indians, a Minnesota sweep could tighten the division race fast.
It’s likely the Twins will sell a lot of last minute tickets for the series, including tonight’s crowd that perhaps could exceed 32,000.
Former Twins World Series manager Tom Kelly, recently honored with a statue outside Target Field, has his 67th birthday today.
The “clock” is moving fast on first baseman-DH Byung Ho Park, the South Korean slugger who turned 31 last month and is struggling to impress the Twins who acquired him in a much hyped free agent signing in December of 2015. Park is hitting .260 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI in 342 at bats playing for Triple-A Rochester. He has played the entire season with the Red Wings after a part-time showing with Minnesota in 2016 when he hit .191 with 12 home runs and 24 RBI.
The Minnesota Football Coaches Association is reminding prep coaches that annual membership in their organization and the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association makes coaches and players eligible for MFCA post-season awards.
Erik Haula, the former Wild forward now with the expansion Golden Knights, is among the NHL players participating in the summer Da Beauty League in Edina. He will be back in Minnesota November 30 when his Las Vegas team plays the Wild at Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild, in partnership with Minnesota Hockey and the National Sports Center, will host the Mite Fall Jamboree presented by Xcel Energy on September 15-17 at the Center in Blaine. Discounted single game tickets are offered to jamboree participants and families for Wild home preseason games September 21 and 30. More at Wild.com/mites.
The University of Minnesota Athletic Department has sold almost 500 more public season tickets for men’s basketball than in early August of 2016. Totals in several public season tickets categories as of August 3 of this year showed increases over 2016, according to figures provided by the department to Sports Headliners.
The Gophers reported 251 new public season accounts and 594 new tickets. Those totals on August 3, 2016 were 63 new accounts and 102 tickets.
The public season tickets total provided was 6,848, compared to 6,141 last year. (No student season tickets figures are published here because the sales campaign doesn’t start until September.)
Although the athletic department is still selling season tickets for the home 2017-2018 schedule, the renewal deadline for past ticket holders was May 31. The department reported 97.8 percent of tickets were renewed, compared with 82.7 percent a year ago.
The “box office” trend isn’t surprising given the unexpected success of last season’s 11-7 Big Ten team and national media optimism about the 2017-2018 Gophers who Sportingnews.com ranked No. 10 in the country. The public season ticket totals will increase between now and the team’s first games in November, and student sales seem likely to surpass those for 2016-2017.
That’s good news for an athletic department which has seen a decline in public season tickets since 2000. There has also been a drop off in individual game tickets sold. In recent seasons sellout crowds have been the exception at historic 14,625 seat Williams Arena.
Minnesota ranked 11th in average attendance last season in the 14-member Big Ten Conference. The Gophers averaged 10,308 fans per game and ranked No. 37 in the nation. By comparison, Wisconsin led the Big Ten with a per game average of 17,286 and ranked sixth nationally.
For years the Gophers basketball product has often been disappointing fans including the 2-16 Big Ten record in 2015-2016. Last season’s 11-7 record was just the third time since 2000 that Minnesota has finished with a winning record in league games.
Coach Richard Pitino, who will begin his fifth season at Minnesota in the fall, has the program trending upward now with all but one of his key players returning for next season. He also has promising newcomers on the 2017-2018 roster led by flashy New York City point guard Isaiah Washington. There appears to be more good news coming with what might be a national top 10 recruiting class in 2018.
A run next winter at a Big Ten title and a couple of wins in the NCAA Tournament could really make ticket numbers jump in the next 12 months. That would be a welcome addition for a season ticket base whose core features aging customers who have been supporting the program for a long time.
One player who likely won’t be in Pitino’s 2018 class is Tre Jones. The Apple Valley High School senior point guard will announce his college choice later today and basketball recruiting authorities will be stunned if he doesn’t select Duke. (Every predictor on 247Sports, for example, says Duke).
The Blue Devils have been on his short list and the successful experience of older brother Tyus Jones at Duke seems like an important factor. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski might be the best basketball coach on any level in the world and has produced a long list of pros.
The Saint John’s-St. Thomas football game at Target Field on September 23 is one of the college games for the 2017 season featured in the current issue of Sports Illustrated. S.I. said: “This one promises to be a thrill for those seeking the purity of ye-olde game: no national scholarships, no national-TV cameras, no football-player only dorms, no leaving early for the draft. It’s just two teams filled with mostly local kids pounding away for bragging rights.”
That was former Timberwolves broadcaster Kevin Harlan and ex-Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon working Thursday night’s Packers-Eagles game from Green Bay on the Packers TV Network. Harlan said the network, including stations in Alaska and Hawaii, is the “third largest” in the NFL.
During Friday night’s Twins-Tigers telecast, analyst Torii Hunter asked broadcast partner Dick Bremer if he will be wearing his Speedo swimsuit Monday. The Twins will have an off day then and Bremer plans to be at his lake place. Bremer’s Monday plans prompted Hunter’s question, and a quick no from the veteran broadcaster.
Hunter’s son, Torii Jr., was drafted in the 23rd round last year by the Angels and is playing center field for the Orem Owlz in the Pioneer League where he is hitting .317 with one home run and 11 RBI in 32 games. The 22-year-old was better known for football at Notre Dame where he was a wide receiver.