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Experts See Vikings as NFL Contenders

February 04, 2016 - (0) comments

 

Maybe it’s no pipe dream to believe the Vikings will play in the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

Former Cowboys personnel authority Gil Brandt, now writing for Nfl.com, said in a January 28 story the Panthers and Seahawks top his list of teams with the biggest Super Bowl windows, but he is aware of the Vikings.  He identified six teams that are best positioned to compete for championships for awhile: the Panthers, Seahawks, Steelers, Bengals, Vikings and Patriots.

Brandt ranked the Vikings No. 5 mostly because of a strong nucleus of defensive players, anticipated improvement of third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and the excellence of Adrian Peterson who led the NFL in rushing last season and might repeat at age 31.  Brandt wrote the Vikings are “by no means perfect” but are an ascending club in a division where the Packers, the longtime king of the hill, are a “bit of a descending team.”

Former Vikings defensive lineman Bob Lurtsema, who remains close to the team, has predicted for about a year his former club will be in the 2017 Super Bowl.  “This (coach) Zimmer, he’s got his act together,” Lurtsema told Sports Headliners.

Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer

Lurtsema has praised third-year Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer perhaps longer than anyone else.  Lurtsema doesn’t see weaknesses on the defense, and he is predicating a successful 2016 season and Super Bowl on an improved offense.  Most specifically he sees a better offensive line next fall that will give third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater more time to throw.

Lurtsema has watched Zimmer lead the Vikings from a 2014 record of 7-9 to an 11-5 success and the NFC North title during the 2015 season.  Zimmer is a demanding leader but generates results.  “The players love him,” Lurtsema said.

Super Bowl 50 this Sunday will be played in Santa Clara, California, then next year the game is in Houston before coming to Minneapolis.  It will be special if the Vikings earn an invite to the “big party” in the next couple of years.  The Vikings haven’t been in the Super Bowl since 1977.  Only twice in Super Bowl history has a team played in a stadium in its home market, according to Wikipedia.

The Panthers have been about a six-point favorite over the Broncos this week but Lurtsema said that’s too many points for Sunday’s game.  “If I was a betting man, I’d bet my house and everything.  I’d take the five or six points and grab Denver—because Denver’s defense, especially the defensive line, is the best in the league. …”

There is a lot of flattering talk about Cam Newton, the Panthers’ talented 26-year-old quarterback.  Lurtsema is an admirer and he recalled a 2011 game in Charlotte between the Vikings and Panthers.  Late in the game Lurtsema was on the sideline and so close to Newton he could closely observe a hard hit on the 6-5, 245-pound Newton.

Newton’s response to the collision?  “God, I love this game.”

Lurtsema was won over when he heard that.  “I am in love with this guy from now on,” Lurtsema declared on that late October day.

There are Minnesota connections in Sunday’s game including Jared Allen with the Panthers and Ryan Harris from the Broncos.  A defensive end, Allen was one of the Vikings’ most popular players from 2009-2013.  In 2011 he had 22 sacks for the season and set a Vikings’ franchise record.  He narrowly missed the NFL record of 22.5.

Named to the list of the 50 greatest Vikings ever in 2010, Allen was often good for a sharp quote during media sessions and was known in the community as a longtime supporter of military veterans.  While he was in Minnesota he started Jared Allen’s Homes for Wounded Veterans, a charity to provide handicap-accessible homes for veterans returning from duty.

Allen is an outdoor enthusiast and has hunted wolves, bison and elk.  Lurtsema owns land in outstate Minnesota where he gave Allen permission to hunt black bear and deer.  “Very nice guy but he beats to a different drum,” Lurtsema said.  “He was into hunting big time.  That was his passion.  He’s been to Africa.  He’s done it all.”

Allen left the Vikings during the 2014 offseason to join the Bears.  Now 33, he was traded last September by the Bears to the Panthers for a 2016 draft pick.  A broken foot caused him to miss the Panthers’ NFC championship win over the Cardinals, but expectations are he will play Sunday in his first Super Bowl.

Harris is another player with a “good guy” reputation among Minnesotans.  The Minneapolis-born starting left tackle for the Broncos played three seasons for Cretin-Derham Hall before attending Notre Dame.  While at Cretin, his line coach was former Gophers center Ray Hitchcock.  For three seasons Harris was a Raiders starter at left tackle and over the years he formed a tight relationship with Hitchcock and his son Brooks.

Five days before the Broncos-Patriots AFC title game on January 24, Harris extended a surprise invitation to the Hitchcocks.  They paid their airfare to Denver and back to Minneapolis, but everything else including game tickets, lodging and dinner at Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steak House was courtesy of Harris.

Ray & Brooks

Ray & Brooks

“He is just a hell of a guy,” Ray said.  “He’s a guy you want to be around.”

Worth Noting

Football fans learn Saturday if former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and Tony Dungy—who played for the Gophers and was an assistant coach with the Vikings—are selected as new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The Hall’s Selection Committee meets in San Francisco Saturday to elect the 2016 Hall of Fame Class.

Favre and Dungy are among 15 Modern Era Finalists being considered for induction into the hall.  This is Favre’s first year being considered, and the legendary quarterback who led the Packers to a Super Bowl title seems like a cinch to win approval Saturday.  Dungy, who was the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl when his Colts defeated the Bears in 2007, has been a finalist before.

The criteria used in searching for the next Gophers athletic director is likely to emphasize candidates with integrity and a proven track record in building relationships.  Those are qualities that distinguish WCHA men’s hockey commissioner Bill Robertson whose career workplaces have included the Angels, Ducks, Timberwolves and Wild.  A Minnesota native with a long list of friends and contacts in the Twin Cities, Robertson’s WCHA office is in Edina.

Perhaps in a couple of years all Gophers football fans will be applauding the 2016 recruiting class coach Tracy Claeys announced yesterday, but for now Websites like Rivals.com aren’t giving the group high rankings.  Rivals.com ranks five of seven schools from the Big Ten East Division ahead of the No. 50 Gophers.  The West Division is home to the Gophers and Rivals has the recruiting classes of Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern listed ahead of Minnesota.  Nebraska at No. 25 is the highest ranked West Division recruiting class while the East is led by No. 3. Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan and No. 20 Michigan State.

The Gophers basketball team is 0-10 in the Big Ten going into tonight’s game against 3-7 Northwestern in Evanston.  Minnesota’s laundry list of problems mostly comes down to this: the Gophers have only one consistent impact player.  Sophomore guard Nate Mason leads the team on a regular basis in scoring (13.7) and assists (4.5).  Last Saturday in a close loss at Indiana he had 21 points.  The prior game against Purdue he totaled 15 points and 12 assists.

Nate Mason

Nate Mason

Mason has scored 19 points or more in three of his last four games, but he plays with inconsistent teammates.  In the Purdue game freshman guard Dupree McBrayer tied a career high with 13 points, and then had 8 points against Indiana while missing 9 of 12 shots.  Another freshman guard, Kevin Dorsey, didn’t score against Purdue but had a career high 21 in the Indiana game.  Freshman forward Jordan Murphy, who leads the team in rebounding at 7.9 per game, often is in first half foul trouble and has to sit on the bench for long stretches.

McBrayer, Dorsey and Murphy are talented and must all become consistent impact players to help the Gophers reach .500 or better in the Big Ten next season.  The same is true of sophomore center Bakary Konate who is finally showing improvement and gives the roster badly needed size.

“Future is pretty bright for us,” Murphy said last week after the Purdue loss.  “I think we know that as a team, but we still gotta compete this season.  It’s not over yet.  We gotta just keep grinding. …”

McBrayer talked recently about the problem of making free throws late in games when they’re needed the most:  “We shoot them every day after and before practice.  They should be second nature to us.  It’s just in a game you have to calm down and knuckle down.”

 

U Fans Guessing on WR Recruit

February 02, 2016 - 1 Comment

 

Former Gophers assistant head coach Matt Limegrover, now offensive line coach at Penn State, is trying to persuade four-star wide receiver Dredrick Snelson to sign his National Letter of Intent with the Nittany Lions tomorrow.

Ryan Burns, publisher of Scout’s GopherDigest.com, told Sports Headliners Limegrover has visited Snelson’s Florida home and last weekend he was on the Penn State campus.  But recruiting authority Matt Jessen-Howard tweeted a quote on Sunday where Snelson said Gophers fans should not worry about his loyalty.

Snelson gave a verbal commitment to the Gophers last summer but there has been ongoing speculation he has or will change his mind.  Burns, who has been covering recruiting for five years, has seldom seen such intrigue involving a recruit.

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Burns said Snelson has sent mixed messages.  “Penn State is confident they’re going to get him,” Burns said.  “Central Florida, where he has been twice this month (January), is confident they’re going to get him.  The Gophers are thinking they’re going to land him.

“Two out of the three parties are going to be wrong.  We won’t find out until Wednesday morning.  How does it end?  I think it ends he signs with Minnesota but I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. …”

Burns described Snelson, from Pembroke Pines, Florida, as “media savvy” and someone who enjoys the recruiting publicity.  On the telephone he found Snelson to be respectful and a “nice kid.”

Snelson, about 5-11, 200-pounds, has impressive but not dominating physical skills.  He is projected as a slot receiver with the Gophers and Burns believes Snelson could be ready as a freshman to succeed 2015 starter K.J. Maye who used up his eligibility.

Snelson, along with Eden Prairie High School linebacker Carter Coughlin, is one of only two consensus four-star recruits who have verbally pledged to the Gophers.  Not many Florida four-star recruits commit to Minnesota but Burns believes Snelson likes how the Gophers use the slot receiver and that he sees an opportunity to play early in his career.  New Gophers offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, who replaced Limegrover, has been involved with recruiting Snelson since last month.

In recent years the Gophers’ receiving roster has lacked impact players and no doubt Snelson is aware of that.  Burns said in-state receivers Drew Hmielewski from Marshall and Phillip Howard from Robbinsdale Cooper may have even better potential as college players than Snelson.

Recruiting Websites list 19 players as part of the Gophers’ 2016 class.  Burns believes the verbal commitments of all are solid except for Snelson and Coney Durr who visited Virginia Tech last weekend.  Durr, a three-star recruit from Geismar, Louisiana, is a defensive back.

Worth Noting

Shannon Brooks

Shannon Brooks

The Gophers’ commitment list has only one running back, Butler (Kansas) Community College transfer Kobe McCrary.  Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys said on WCCO “Radio’s Sports Huddle” on Sunday recruiting running backs has been a challenge because freshmen Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith were so successful last fall.

McCrary, about 6-1 and 230-pounds, gives the Gophers a backup to Brooks and Smith.  He has more size than either of them and helps replace power running Rodrick Williams who was a senior last year.

The Big Ten Network will have Big Ten coverage of Signing Day tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Central Time.  As of yesterday Scout.com listed three Big Ten programs in the top 10 nationally:  Ohio State, No. 2; Michigan, No. 5; and Michigan State No. 7.  Minnesota is No 43.

Part of the network’s coverage tomorrow will be Michigan’s “Signing with the Stars” event featuring celebrities from sports, music and entertainment.  Celebrities expected to attend are Tom Brady, John Harbaugh, Derek Jeter, Jim Leyland, Denard Robinson, NASCAR’s Brad Keslowski, wrestling’s Ric Flair and others.  They will introduce head coach Jim Harbaugh’s 2016 football class.

Jaylon Boston is a name for Gophers fans to follow in the next 12 months.  “He is a hell of a player,” said McKinley Boston, Jaylon’s grandfather and the former Gophers athletic director.

Jaylon lives with his grandfather in New Mexico and attends Centennial High School in Las Cruces.  As a sophomore, the 5-10, 185-pound running back was second team all-state, but because of what his grandfather described as a “medical” situation he didn’t play as a junior.  Boston said New Mexico State, where his grandfather was athletic director until about a year ago, is looking at Jaylon but the Gophers aren’t.

Despite speculation to the contrary, don’t give up on the University of Minnesota and former football coach Jerry Kill being able to develop a new position for him at the school.  There has been contact between the two parties.

Rachel Banham

Rachel Banham

Gophers senior guard Rachel Banham could end the season as the Big Ten’s scoring leader.  In 21 games she is averaging 24.3 points per game and ranks second behind Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, 25.3 points.  Banham has scored 20 or more points in nine consecutive games and has done that 19 times this season. Former Hopkins High School standout Nia Coffey, a junior forward at Northwestern, is fifth in scoring at 20 points per game and first in rebounding at 10.4.

Although the Gophers lost at Michigan on Sunday, they have won four of their last five games.  Minnesota, 14-7 overall and 6-4 in the Big Ten, won those games by seven points or less, and the Gophers have shown the ability to close out opponents in the fourth quarter.  The Gophers play Rutgers, 13-9 and 4-6, at home on Thursday night.

Former Timberwolves assistant Eric Musselman is drawing attention in his first season as head coach at the University of Nevada.  Nevada’s pregame ball handling warm-up is a hit and the team is playing competitively in the Mountain West.

Musselman, who was a head coach in the NBA with the Kings and Warriors, might be on a list of candidates if the Timberwolves make a coaching change.  Interim Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell is trying out for the permanent job.  Other potential candidates perhaps could include Tom Thibodeau, the former Timberwolves assistant and ex-Bulls head coach who is well-known for his defensive teachings.

Connor Nord, the former St. Thomas basketball center whose final season was 2014-2015, has been playing professionally in Germany, and plans to continue his career in Europe.  Marcus Alipate, a combo guard who played four seasons with Nord at St. Thomas, will be playing pro ball in New Zealand.

 

Ex-Gopher AD Backs Frazier for U Job

January 31, 2016 - (0) comments

 

McKinley Boston will send a “letter of nomination” soon to University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler regarding the school’s vacant athletic director position.  Boston, the former Gophers AD in the early 1990s, is promoting Sean Frazier for the opening at Minnesota that is being filled on an interim basis by Beth Goetz.

Boston, who retired as the AD at New Mexico State about a year ago, not only served as a leader in athletics and academics at Minnesota but also played on the Gophers’ last Big Ten football championship team in 1967.  Because of Boston’s knowledge about the University and state of Minnesota, he believes Frazier would be the right fit for the Gophers’ opening created by the dismissal of Norwood Teague last year.

Boston, an African-American, was the first minority person to become athletic director at the U.  About 10 years ago he became a founder of a group to mentor and grow the number of African-American athletic directors.  Among those in the group being mentored was Frazier who is now the athletic director at Northern Illinois after leaving the University of Wisconsin where he was deputy athletic director.

Frazier, who won’t speak publicly about athletic director openings at other schools, has impressed Boston over the years and the two men are friends.  In an email to Sports Headliners Boston described Frazier as an individual who “should be a strong candidate” for the Gophers’ position.  During a telephone conversation Boston said he expects to send his “letter of nomination” within the next several days.

The Gophers’ search is just beginning, and finding Teague’s successor will be a priority for Kaler who does know Frazier.  Earlier this month the two men were in San Antonio where the Northern Illinois Athletic Department was recognized as the NCAA’s 2016 winner of the organization’s diversity and inclusion award.

As a leader of athletic departments Frazier has made a commitment to minorities and women, but his experiences and skill set go far beyond that initiative.  He has been an athletic director on the Division I, II and III levels—gaining varied experiences working with different sports and having responsibilities in hiring coaches, fundraising, developing facilities and fostering academic performance by athletes.

At Wisconsin he was AD Barry Alvarez’s top assistant and he oversaw day to day operations of the Badgers’ 23 sport program.  Alvarez runs one of the nation’s top athletic programs but delegated many of the details, including revenue development, to Frazier.

Frazier, who came to Northern Illinois in 2013, has experience working with national groups including a past assignment as chair of the NCAA hockey committee.  He also knows Jim Delany and might well have the Big Ten commissioner’s endorsement for athletic director vacancies at Illinois and Minnesota.

While Frazier isn’t talking about those two Big Ten positions, it’s believed Illinois has already contacted him, and the process to fill that job may be moving faster than at Minnesota where Kaler has indicated a spring hire is likely.

Michigan introduced African-American Warde Manuel as its new athletic director on Friday.  Manuel, who is a former Wolverines football player, had been the AD at Connecticut and is another individual mentored by Boston.  Manuel and Frazier have similar experiences in athletics administration, and as college athletes.  “You could certainly put them in the same category,” Boston said.

Frazier is originally from Long Island, New York and played football for Alabama from 1987-1991.  Known as an extroverted personality who has made a name for himself in college athletics, Frazier reportedly dismissed interest in the Syracuse University AD opening last year.

Worth Noting

Jerry Kill

Jerry Kill

Bill and Kay McRreavy, long time Gophers boosters, were curious when their doorbell rang at 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday earlier this month.  To their surprise, Jerry and Rebecca Kill came to say goodbye as they prepared to leave Minneapolis and relocate to Illinois.  The Kills are a remarkable couple and they no doubt made time to say farewells to other Gophers loyalists who helped them at Minnesota during the last several years.

It might be that Minneapolis and U.S. Bank Stadium weren’t selected for the 2020 College Football Playoff Game because the site selection group was concerned about pushback from corporate sponsors who already are coming here in 2018 for the Super Bowl and 2019 for the Final Four.  When there is another bid opportunity for games beyond 2020, look for Minneapolis to try again.

Minneapolis businessman and Taste of the NFL founder Wayne Kostroski leaves tomorrow for northern California and Super Bowl 50.  This will be the 25th Taste of the NFL, with activities scheduled at the Bay Area’s historic Cow Palace that is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  The event raises money for local and national food banks.

“We are proud to be celebrating 25 years and over $24 million, (and) nearly $200 million meals to food banks and nonprofit organizations across the country,” Kostroski said.

The Twins Winter Caravan drew large crowds again this January as past and present players made stops in regional communities.  The Twins have staged the caravan for 56 years, the longest duration of any offseason fan tour in baseball.  Twins legend Tony Oliva has participated in each caravan since 1964.

With Torii Hunter retired, it will be interesting to see who emerges as club leaders in 2016.  Third baseman Trevor Plouffe, 29 and entering his sixth major league season, might be a candidate.  He is personable and had the kind of season in 2015 that provides a platform for leadership.

He set single season highs last year in hits (140), RBI (86), runs scored (74), games (152), at-bats (573) and triples (4).  Plouffe’s .972 fielding percentage ranked third among major league third basemen last season.

 

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