Dan O’Brien is joining the staff of Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys as assistant to the head coach, assistant defensive backs coach and co-special teams coordinator. The announcement was made this morning by interim athletic director Beth Goetz in an e-mail to staff.
O’Brien was a senior associate athletic director for the Gophers overseeing the football program. The Winthrop, Minnesota native was director of football operations for ex-head coach Jerry Kill before being promoted to the administrative position in the athletic department. His career coaching experiences include high school positions and being head football coach at Concordia, St. Paul.
The announcement seems surprising but the new assignment may provide O’Brien with more job security since the athletic department leadership is uncertain with a new AD expected to be hired next year. A source told Sports Headliners O’Brien’s salary will increase by a lot in his new role which includes working with Pat Poore in coordinating special teams.
O’Brien has excellent relationships in the state including with high school coaches. He and linebackers coach Mike Sherels, another Minnesota native, will be responsible for recruiting in the state.
The change appears indicative of Claey’s vision as the new leader of the football program. Yesterday he dismissed offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski.
Claeys, who has shown a willingness to take risks on the field coaching his team, likely has replacements already in mind. It would be unusual for a head coach on the major college level to make dismissals without having a solid idea regarding philosophies he wants his coordinator and quarterbacks coach to have, and also not having names of candidates he wants to pursue.
At least two former Gophers and Minnesota natives could perhaps enter the picture. Tony Levine, who was let go as Houston’s head coach last December, might be a name to consider for the offensive coordinator job. Levine, a wide receiver for the Gophers under Jim Wacker, has an extensive coaching resume including under offensive coaching whiz Kevin Sumlin. A source said this morning Levine is living in Houston but not coaching.
Adam Weber received praise this year in his first season as an offensive graduate assistant working primarily with the quarterbacks. A four-year starter for the Gophers as a record-setting quarterback under then head coach Tim Brewster from 2007-2010, Weber has playing experience in pro football and is interested in a coaching career.
His knowledge and ability to relate to young players could make him an attractive hire as quarterbacks coach under Claeys.
Sports Headliners’ final Big Ten football power rankings:
1. Michigan State, 11-1: One controversial call at Nebraska leaves Sparty inches short of an undefeated season.
2. Ohio State, 11-1: Rare times when a one loss team is labeled a disappointment but the description fits the defending national champs.
3. Iowa, 12-0: Textbook season by the Hawkeyes who didn’t try to do more than their talent could deliver and seldom made mistakes.
4. Michigan, 9-3: With Jim Harbaugh in charge, these are your father’s Wolverines.
5. Northwestern, 10-2: After two seasons of mediocrity, the Wildcats claw back near the top.
6. Wisconsin, 9-3: The Badgers couldn’t run the ball in Big Ten games until they arrived in Minneapolis and found a Gophers defensive line wrecked by injuries.
7. Penn State, 7-5: Coach James Franklin’s recruiting looks good on paper but Nittany Lions aren’t back yet as a Big Ten power.
8. Nebraska, 5-7: Talented Cornhuskers beat Michigan State but mostly beat themselves with self-inflicted wounds.
9. Minnesota, 5-7: Risk being called a homer by ranking the Gophers ahead of Indiana and Illinois but here we go.
10. Indiana, 6-6: Hoosiers bowl-bound for first time in five seasons under coach Kevin Wilson, who has a go-go offense, and a yikes defense.
11. Illinois, 5-7: Illini matched Minnesota losing four of its last five games including one to the Gophers.
12. Rutgers, 4-8: I doubt many people in Manhattan are boasting that the Scarlet Knight’s are “New York’s college team.”
13. Maryland, 3-9: The Terps are searching for a new head coach and need a good one.
14. Purdue, 2-10: Boilers are cemented in as Big Ten’s worst after coach Darrell Hazell has won two league games in three seasons.
Gophers senior offensive lineman Jon Christenson will earn his masters degree in public health next semester. He plans to be enrolled in medical school in the fall of 2017, hopefully at Minnesota. What will the Minnetonka native specialize in?
“Right now I am leaning toward orthopedic surgery,” he said. “I would love to be somewhere in sports medicine. I really feel like I could relate well to patients, especially young athletes—having been through so much myself. Unfortunately I know quite a few orthopedic surgeons from my experience here (being injured).”
After yesterday’s 20-10 win by the Vikings over the Falcons, coach Mike Zimmer has his team in first place in the NFC North with an 8-3 record. Running back Adrian Peterson leads the NFL in rushing with 1,164 yards. The Vikings have given up 194 points, second only to the Bengals with 193.
The Vikings have remaining games at home against the Seahawks, Bears and Giants. Road games remain versus the Cardinals and Packers. The Vikings could be favored in every game except the matchup against the 9-2 Cardinals.
Fox commentator John Lynch, the former defensive back with the Bucs, critiqued Teddy Bridgewater on yesterday’s telecast and said the Vikings quarterback holds the ball “longer” while attempting to pass than any quarterback in the NFL.
The 4-2 Gophers play 4-1 Clemson tonight at Williams Arena as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge series. The Tigers’ one loss was 82-65 to Massachusetts but of more interest to Gophers fans should be Clemson’s 76-58 neutral court win over Rutgers, a team that is a popular choice to finish last in the Big Ten. Minnesota is predicted to finish near the bottom of the standings too. Tonight’s game is on ESPN2.
Save the date: the annual Breakdown Sports Tip Off Classics at Minnetonka High School involving boys and girls teams will be December 12. Among the anticipated matchups is the 3:45 p.m. boys game between Class 4-A powers Apple Valley and Hopkins. Apple Valley’s roster includes national recruiting targets Gary Trent Jr. and Tre Jones—junior and sophomore standouts. Hopkins features Amir Coffey, a favorite to be the state’s best prep senior. Michael Hurt, another senior and like Coffey committed to the Gophers for next fall, will play for Rochester John Marshall in an 8 p.m. boys game against Shakopee. Both are 4-A teams. More on the tournaments at Breakdownsportsusa.com.
The Gophers hockey team has a disappointing 4-7 record so far but entering this season Minnesota had won more games (105) the last four seasons than any Division I men’s program. The Gophers also made program history by winning consecutive regular season league titles the last four years, with two championships in the WCHA and the two most recent in the Big Ten.
J.D. Spielman, who was honored yesterday as the state’s Mr. Football award winner, told Sports Headliners despite Nebraska’s losing season he remains “100 percent” committed to the Cornhuskers and isn’t considering Minnesota or other schools.
Spielman made a verbal commitment to Nebraska last summer and has watched the Cornhuskers struggle in coach Mike Riley’s first season. Nebraska goes into its final regular season game on Friday against undefeated Iowa with a 3-4 Big Ten record, 5-6 overall. The Cornhuskers are among college football’s winningest programs in past decades and have a tradition of playing for championships. Riley has received plenty of criticism this fall but Spielman is expected to sign a National Letter of Intent with Nebraska next year on National Signing Day for high school players.
“I have a lot of faith in what coach Riley is doing over there,” Spielman said. “I know this season didn’t go as planned but it’s a process. That’s what happens when a head coach just comes into a program and starts coaching kids he didn’t recruit. But once the next couple of recruiting classes come in, Nebraska is going to be a big thing.”
Spielman, despite his 5-foot-8, 174-pound size, is a big thing in Minnesota high school football. The Eden Prairie High School running back, wide receiver and defensive back is probably one of the state’s most explosive players ever. His high school coach, Mike Grant, said Spielman can “make something out of nothing”—even running back and forth across the field leaving coaches, players and fans gasping. “Special talent, no question,” Grant said.
The coach expects Spielman to increase his weight in college to about 190 pounds and still run a 4.4 40-yard dash. He predicts Spielman, who combines extraordinary vision with his speed and ability to cut, will play as a college freshman. “He’ll be on the field on offense,” Grant said. “He’s ready to play right now.”
Spielman expects to be a receiver at Nebraska but Grant said his Mr. Football winner could even play tailback in college. Spielman blossomed on offense this season after playing mostly defense last year. Grant said a big reason for Spielman’s success in averaging 12.3 yards per carry was learning to be patient, waiting for space to open up.
Spielman, who averaged 29.3 yards on kickoff returns and 24.6 yards on punt returns, was one of 10 finalists for the Mr. Football award given annually to the state’s best senior player, and sponsored by the Minnesota Football Coaches Association and the Minnesota Vikings. Among the other finalists was Eden Prairie teammate Carter Coughlin, the outstanding linebacker who is committed to Minnesota and has lobbied for Spielman to become a Gopher.
“I am 100 percent Nebraska right now,” Spielman said.
Why is he sold on the Cornhuskers? “The fan base is crazy. The fans show a lot of love and support for all the players. That’s a big thing,” Spielman said. “I also like coach Riley and his coaching staff. They’re all some of the nicest people I’ve met.”
Spielman’s father, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, didn’t sound concerned that it will require traveling to see his son play for the Cornhuskers. “We’ll work it out,” said Rick who is on the road a lot in the fall to scout college players.
He and his wife Michele have adopted six children including J.D. who came into their home at eight months old. J.D. has been playing football since first grade. Although J.D. is small, Rick never felt his son was too diminutive for football because of the “size of his heart.”
He also praised J.D’s football work ethic, noting that all his children have been encouraged to apply effort to school and athletics because dedication is something “you can control.”
Mike Zimmer said his team was down emotionally when he met with players earlier today. The Vikings head coach said at his afternoon news conference he would be upset if they were laughing and joking after Sunday’s loss to the Packers at TCF Bank Stadium. He told players that by Wednesday they should be ready to move on in preparation for next week’s game against the Falcons in Atlanta.
The loss to the Packers left both the Vikings and Green Bay with 7-3 records, and tied for first place in the NFC North Division. “I still like this team. I still believe in this team, regardless of what will be said, or what will be written, or our moods today,” Zimmer said. “I believe in this team.”
Wide receiver Mike Wallace, reportedly the Vikings second highest paid player and an offseason acquisition, has caught only two passes in the last four games. “I am not concerned about stats, or individual stats, or anything like that,” Zimmer said. “All I am concerned about is how to get this team better.”
Tomorrow the Wild unveil uniforms the club will wear for its February 21 outdoor game against the Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium. Tickets are still available for the event, officially known as the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game.
Tracy Claeys got his first win as Gophers head coach without the interim tag last Saturday against Illinois, but he has no plans to keep a game ball as a memento. “I want that axe,” he said.
The Gophers and Badgers play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota hasn’t won the annual rivalry trophy since 2003.
A win over Wisconsin will give the Gophers a 6-6 record and ensure bowl eligibility. Minnesota’s bowl destination might be the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in New York’s Yankee Stadium on December 26, the day after Christmas. The late afternoon game will match Big Ten and ACC teams, and be televised on ABC.
A Gophers athletic department spokesman said as of last Saturday about 1,700 tickets remained for the Wisconsin game.
Former Gophers head coach Jerry Kill is spending time at his lake home in Illinois before returning to Minneapolis for Thanksgiving.
David Benedict, who worked as a top assistant for former Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague, is a candidate for the AD position at Tulane. Benedict is currently chief operating officer for the athletic department at Auburn.
Ken Lien is a long time Gophers basketball fan, and offers this opinion on the current group: “For a team that lives and dies with the three, they will die more than they live.”
Lien is president and owner of the Minnesota boys Mr. Basketball award, and he has been associated with that endeavor for 41 years. Committee members are already looking at players for the 2016 award honoring the best senior in the state. An initial list of 50 Minnesota high school seniors has been compiled.
A lengthy list of notes including an unofficial vote for the Vikings midseason MVP, and also the Gophers “revenge” game tomorrow against Illinois.
Ex-Vikings defensive lineman Bob Lurtsema remains close to the team and was asked to name a MVP after nine games. “Linval Joseph right now is leading the pack, but if you answer the question straight out, I would say the defensive line entirely,” Lurtsema told Sports Headliners. “…They do so many things, and now they’re coming together as a group.”
Joseph, a 27-year-old defensive tackle in his second season with the Vikings, is having a career year. Joseph has 31 solo tackles through nine starts, after totaling 28 in 16 games last season. He has 43 combined tackles, with seven games remaining in the regular schedule. His career-best for solo tackles in one season is 34, and it’s 59 for combined tackles.
Joseph was announced as NFC Defensive Player of the Week a couple days after his performance on November 8 against the Rams. In that overtime win he had 10 tackles, including seven solo.
Joseph was a starter with the Giants before coming to the Vikings as a free agent prior to the 2014 season. The six-year pro told Sports Headliners that for consistency this is his best season. “I feel like things are just working out well for me right now. Everybody is playing team ball. Everybody is just happy for one another when they make plays. I just like the atmosphere that’s going on in this locker room. I just can’t wait to play Green Bay this week.”
The NFC North Division leading Vikings, 7-2, will play Green Bay at TCF Bank Stadium and the Packers will face a defense giving up only 17.1 points per game—best in the NFC. Joseph and his defensive line teammates have helped lead a productive defense for head coach Mike Zimmer, now in his second season with the Vikings.
“He’s a very good guy,” Joseph said about his coach. “He cares about his players. His players care about him. At the end of the day we’ve all got the same mindset. We want to win. We want to go to the top.”
Lurtsema has frequently praised Zimmer for his defensive teaching skills, blitz calls, secondary coverages, and overall approach with the team including intolerance for players who habitually make mistakes. Before this season began, an optimistic Lurtsema predicted a 10-6 record for the Vikings and a spot in the playoffs. The Vikings had finished 7-9 in 2014 and didn’t qualify for postseason play.
Lurtsema is also predicting a Vikings win by three points against the 6-3 Packers who have lost three straight games. The Packers are in a funk after an 18-16 loss to the now 2-7 Lions in Green Bay last Sunday. “Something’s missing there,” Lurtsema said on Monday. “You just don’t lose at home, especially to Detroit.”
A supportive and amped-up Vikings crowd on Sunday might even be the difference in the outcome of a game that is a projected toss-up. “Attitude (from players) is contagious. Attitude from the crowd is contagious,” Lurtsema said. “If it wasn’t important, why would point spreads bring in three points for home field advantage? That’s what they have always stated.”
The Gophers play Illinois tomorrow at TCF Bank Stadium and Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner has a message for the Illini who pulled off an upset last year. “It definitely was a surprise for us to go down there and get beat last year. They’re coming to our house this year and we’re excited about that, and it’s definitely a game that we got some revenge for them.”
That loss to Illinois cost the Gophers an opportunity to play the last game of the season at Wisconsin with one defeat. The Badgers had one loss entering the game. Wisconsin defeated Minnesota and became the West Division champs with a 7-1 Big Ten record. The Gophers finished with a 5-3 conference record.
Shannon Brooks, the Gophers 19-year-old freshman running back, has emerged as the team’s most explosive runner. “I don’t think he’s a finished product at all, and that’s what’s so exciting about it,” said Matt Limegrover.
Limegrover, Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, expects Brooks to mature physically. Limegrover used senior wide receiver KJ Maye as an example of a Gopher who has become faster, quicker and stronger after being dedicated to year-round training.
Limegrover said Brooks told him he has work to do as he continues to transition from high school to college football. “I think he’ll be a different player as early as this spring,” the coach said.
Brooks has twice been selected as the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week. His most recent honor came this week after a performance last Saturday against Iowa that included 86 yards rushing and a surprise 42-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky.
It was the first pass Brooks has attempted in a Gophers game and perhaps his last, since it’s unusual for a tailback to throw the ball. Wolitarsky admitted the Gophers worked on the play a lot in practice last week. He said the throw Brooks made in the game was his best of the week. “It didn’t look good in practice,” Wolitarsky said.
New Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys, the team’s former defensive coordinator, attends offensive meetings now. Limegrover has come to know Claeys is willing to take chances on offense including the Brooks to Wolitarsky pass. “He was the one that said, ‘Hey, don’t bring it back on the plane with you,’ ” Limegrover recalled.
During games, though, Claeys seldom involves himself with play calling. He said “99.9 percent” (of the time) assistants are deciding on the offensive plays.
Asked about how his life has changed since taking over for Jerry Kill as head coach this fall, Claeys said he’s setting aside 60 to 90 minutes per night to make recruiting calls.
Look for the Gophers to continue Kill’s philosophy of filling recruiting needs mostly with high school players, not junior college prospects who have fewer years of eligibility at Division I schools than preps. Claeys mentioned the Kansas program that a couple of years ago under then head coach Charlie Weis recruited a large class of junior college transfers, and he said that “got them in a bind.”
The November 18 issue of Sports Illustrated ranks MLB’s top 50 free agents and suggests franchises where players will “best fit” next season. Rays shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, 30 years old, and Astros right-hand pitcher Tony Sipp, 32, received Twins best fits.
Cabrera, ranked No. 29 by S.I., hit .265 with 15 home runs and 58 RBI last season, but his big value was in the field where he committed just nine errors in 1,141 innings. Sipp, ranked No. 46, had a career season in relief with a 3-4 record and 1.99 ERA.
The St. Thomas men’s basketball team is one of eight teams playing in the Division 3 Hoopsville Classic Invitational in Stevenson, Maryland. The Tommies, ranked No. 4 in the nation by D3Hoops.com, play Emory tonight and Southern Vermont Saturday evening. Those two teams were a combined 47-10 last season and appear formidable again.
Tommies coach John Tauer is a professor of psychology. Sports Illustrated posted a podcast last Monday on his work as a coach, professor, and author.
Ready for the annual Teddy Bear Toss promotion? Better be if you’re planning to attend the Gophers women’s hockey game at Ridder Arena tonight. Fans can bring stuffed animals for donation to the athletic department’s annual toy drive. When the first Gopher goal is scored, fans can throw the stuffed animals on the ice. Minnesota (11-1-0, 9-1-0 WCHA) plays Yale (1-4-1, 1-2-1 ECAC) tonight and Saturday evening.