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Advice to Vikings: Get Johnny Manziel

April 18, 2014 - (0) comments

  

Who says Johnny Manziel isn’t worth risking a high draft choice for?

“Draft experts” ranging from sportswriters to seamstresses, that’s who. But “experts” from sportswriters to Sunday school teachers also say he is worth the gamble.

Here’s the point: there’s no sure draft prospect.  Never has been.  Quarterbacks who became Super Bowl champions had doubters going into the draft and later.  Roger Staubach, a 10th round pick, had to shake off the rust of a U.S. Navy stint before joining the Cowboys.  John Elway, it was said, couldn’t put enough finesse on his passes but he sure made the Broncos a champion.  Tom Brady played in the shadows at Michigan and was a sixth round draft choice before helping the Patriots become an NFL power.

Manziel, at 6-foot (maybe), is too short to play in the NFL.  He’s more interested in being a celebrity than a winning quarterback.  He’s not worth the risk to a team like the Vikings who have the No. 8 pick in the May 8 NFL Draft.

That’s the kind of stuff you hear.  Maybe you endorse the chatter.  Everybody has an opinion about Johnny Football who combines a strong and accurate arm with the athleticism and vision to dart around the field as if Fran Tarkenton stepped out of a time machine.

“Nobody really played like I played. This kid plays like I did more than anybody else,” Tarkenton told Jim Corbett in a March 11 Usatoday.com story.  Tarkenton also said he would like to know more about Manziel’s off-field activities like leaving the Manning Passing Academy early.

Now everybody, please admit this much: Manziel has made the build-up to the 2014 draft more interesting than the usual prelude.

Some mock drafts have had Manziel being drafted by the Vikings, potentially adding a quarterback who will improvise on plays and perhaps stir memories of Sir Francis.  The opinion here is the Vikings would be fortunate to find him still available after seven other teams drafted.  It’s no cinch the Texans, with the No. 1 pick, will take South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.  That franchise needs a quarterback and maybe it will be fate that Manziel, a Texas native who captured the nation’s attention at Texas A&M, ends up playing in Houston.

The Vikings probably will have to move up in the draft to secure Manziel who could be the first quarterback taken or the second after Central Florida’s Blake Bortles.  Both have impressed in workouts for NFL scouts.

But do the Vikings, also quarterback hungry, really want Manziel? New head coach Mike Zimmer reportedly values character in his players.  In a March 31 Nfl.si.com story by Josh Sanchez, the Vikings coach talked about the importance of a quarterback’s work ethic and leadership.

“We asked him all kinds of questions. …There are some flags that come up,” Zimmer said of Manziel.

Were those the words of a coach throwing up a smoke screen?  Or was it a pronouncement the Vikings don’t want the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner who found himself answering to the NCAA about an autograph controversy after that season?

Manziel is a brash self-promoter and this off-season made a cameo with LeBron James in a McDonald’s commercial.  But lots of athletes have run their mouths and lined their pocketbooks while winning championships.

Manziel supporters will argue he is all about the team.  He was often the hero at A&M, delivering big plays in close games.  After an A&M turnover, he even chased down a Louisiana Tech defensive player who was running toward the end zone.

Staubach knows a lot about doubters and character.  He served in the Navy for five years before joining the Cowboys.  He ended up a Hall of Fame quarterback.  Appearing on the NFL Network’s “NFL AM” program on April 9, Staubach said he would take Manziel over Clowney as the No.1 pick.  “I just think there’s something about this kid,” he said.

Staubach compared Manziel with Russell Wilson, another short-statured quarterback who the Seahawks chose in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft.  Wilson is the starting quarterback now for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks.

Former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber has been in NFL camps trying to make a career in pro football.  His experiences include time on the Broncos’ practice team.  Weber talked about the adjustment Manziel and his NFL team will need to make.

“His size (about 6-feet, 205) and the way he plays can get him exposed,” Weber said. “As a quarterback in the NFL, your job is to stay healthy and stay on the field. …Whoever takes Johnny is going to get a very talented quarterback—kind of a lightning-in-a-bottle type, but I think they’re gonna have to learn to kind of bring (rein) him in a little bit and keep him from exposing his body to big hits because the guys are a little bit bigger and faster in the NFL than they are in college.”

Weber, though, believes Manziel is worthy of a team’s high draft choice.  “He goes out there on his pro day when everyone is watching him, and he puts together one of the best pro days that any quarterback had this year. I don’t know what else you would want.

“The only thing I see is questionable is his size,” said Weber who mentioned smaller quarterbacks like Drew Brees have been effective. “… I would take him.”

Maybe Manziel will end up in Houston.  But Internet stories this month have Manziel applying for a trademark to protect the phrase, “The House That Johnny Built.”  While the slogan is reportedly a tie-in with the renovation of Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, it’s a match with the Vikings’ new stadium opening in 2016.

And there you have it about the most polarizing quarterback prospect in the 2014 draft.  There’s even controversy about how best to market the slogan “The House That Johnny Built.” 

Twins Notes

Stats and impressions about the Twins after almost three weeks of regular season play:

Minnesota is 8-7 after yesterday’s doubleheader wins against the Blue Jays.  The Twins have been swept by only the A’s this season.  Minnesota swept the Royals, won two of three games from the Indians and Blue Jays, and won a single game in the season opening series against the White Sox.

The team’s run production has been a pleasant surprise, including scoring runs with not a lot of hits in some games.  Off-season and spring training personnel decisions appear to have improved the sputtering offense from last year.  Management and coaches can feel good about adding the bats of catcher Josmil Pinto, and outfielders Chris Colabello and Jason Kubel.  Also, the club’s long time patience with second baseman Brian Dozier and third baseman Trevor Plouffe seems to be paying off.

Kubel is hitting .340 while Colabello is the American League RBI leader with 19.  Pinto, with a designated hitter role, is second on the Twins in home runs with three while Dozier, the team’s leadoff hitter, leads the club with five—tied for second in the majors.  Plouffe is hitting .309 with 11 RBI—second best on the team.

Personnel decision makers reshuffled the starting pitching rotation in the offseason.  Results have been disappointing, although rookie Kyle Gibson has been impressive with a 3-0 record and flashy 0.93 ERA.  The bullpen has been more reliable than the starters with Glen Perkins ranking with the league’s best closers.

The Twins appear to be a better club than the team that was 66-96 last year. The guess here is they can win 10 more games than in 2013, perhaps more.

What would it take to push the record closer to .500 or even above? The starting pitching has to improve a lot and the anemic offensive production from shortstop Pedro Florimon and center fielder Aaron Hicks is problematic, although both are superb in the field.

Among the franchise goals entering the season was eliminating last year’s habit of being out of one-sided games by the middle innings.  The 2014 Twins have been almost perfect in avoiding early blowout losses.  That represents progress and puts some air into their hopes.

Former Twins pitcher LaTroy Hawkins is pitching for the Rockies and has a 1.59 ERA with four saves as a reliever.  The 41-year-old Hawkins has been in 949 MLB career games.  “My goals this year are to reach 1,000 career appearances…and to win my first World Series,” Hawkins wrote as a guest columnist in the March 31 issue of Sports Illustrated.

His Rockies teammates include ex-Twins Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau who have .317 and .346 batting averages.

 

Glen Taylor: 2014 Playoffs ‘a Must’

April 16, 2014 - (0) comments

 

The Timberwolves 25th season ends tonight and the franchise won’t qualify for the playoffs.  The club hasn’t participated in post-season games since 2004 and that disappoints owner Glen Taylor who plans on asking plenty of questions during the next couple of weeks.

With a roster of young talent led by All-Star forward Kevin Love, and the addition of new players such as forward Corey Brewer and guard Kevin Martin, the Wolves appeared ready to break the playoff drought when the season started last fall.  “It was a must for this year (making the playoffs),” Taylor told Sports Headliners.

Injuries slowed the club’s progress.  Most notable was the ankle injury of center Nikola Pekovic who has only been able to play in 54 of 81 games.  Other than Love the 28-year-old Pekovic is the team’s best front court scorer and among the NBA’s premier low post offensive players (averages 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds).  Pekovic, who reportedly signed a five-year $60 million contract before last season, has a history of injuries and missing games.

But Taylor said in addition to the team’s injuries contributing to not making the playoffs, he is troubled by the many close games the Wolves lost.  The club often was ineffective in the fourth quarter.  Taylor intends to explore why.  “Is that the responsibility of the staff and the coaches?  How much of that is the players?  I am going to dig further into that.”

Taylor didn’t offer an answer when asked to evaluate and label the performance of the coaching staff.  He wants to meet with the coaches and talk to others in the organization after the season.

Head coach Rick Adelman and Taylor will have a discussion that will focus on more than basketball.  Adelman’s wife Mary Kay has health issues and Taylor understands “family comes first.”  But Taylor wants to know if coaching next season is a priority for Adelman who completes his third season with the Wolves tonight and has a 68th birthday in June.

What Taylor hears from Adelman, long regarded as one of the NBA’s best coaches, will obviously influence whether he wants the coach to return. “You have to take a lot of your energy and thought and emotion into (helping) your family, and it does affect your other areas of responsibility,” Taylor said. “It’s not a criticism of him. …I just want to really sit down and talk to him and see how he feels…before I make a decision or he makes a decision.”

Taylor acknowledged Adelman’s devotion to his wife sometimes took the coach away from the players. “When things like that happen, the basketball team probably doesn’t get its full attention, but that’s life,” Taylor said.

After tonight’s game the Wolves will finish the season with either a 41-41 or 40-42 record.  That will certainly be an improvement over last year’s 31-51 record.  But not making the playoffs is frustrating for Taylor who also has seen his franchise operate with financial losses many years.

Taylor thought this year might be different for the bottom line.  “We’re not going to make our budget.  Our budget was to break even, so my sense is that we’ll lose several million dollars.”

The 72-year-old owner, though, hasn’t lost faith in the franchise and recognizes his young team should get better in coming years, led by Love, 25, and 23-year-old point guard Ricky Rubio.  Perhaps the Wolves will even become a special team and achieve the NBA title aspirations the franchise has long had.

“Personally, I think I have the patience.  I just gotta make sure our coaches and stuff have the patience,” Taylor said.

It will be up to Taylor and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders to find the best supporting players for Love, Pekovic and Rubio.  Any personnel moves, though, will be influenced by payroll.

The owner feels pressure not to exceed the NBA salary cap.  They have or will make major salary commitments to Love, Pekovic and Rubio.  That’s why Taylor, who has most of his roster signed for next season, doesn’t predict the club will sign an expensive free agent this summer. “…You’re looking at probably more the fifth, sixth and seventh positions on the team,” he said.

Worth Noting 

Taylor’s other basketball team, the Lynx, made a six-figure profit of less than $500,000 last season.  It was the first time the Lynx, who won the WNBA title last year, have been profitable.  Taylor expects another winning season and a profitable year in 2014. “By staying into the playoffs and getting to the end, just makes you profitable,” said Taylor who declined to give exact figures.

The Mankato billionaire is closing in on ownership of the Star Tribune.  “It probably won’t get completed until maybe the end of May or first of June but I am confident it will get done,” Taylor said.

As newspaper owner will Taylor expect friendly coverage of his Timberwolves?  “No.  I expect those guys to do their jobs,” he answered.

Former Gopher football players Keanon Cooper and Chris Hawthorne are among 25 interns working in the University of Minnesota Athletic Department.  The Golden Gophers Internship program provides 10-12 months of learning experiences in department areas such as communications, facilities, fundraising and marketing.  Participants must have a BA or BS degree and preference is given to candidates who have played for Gophers men’s and women’s teams.

Interns receive $1,000.00 per month.  More information is available by contacting senior associate athletic director Marc Ryan, ryanx011@umn.edu.

Rachel Banham, who led the Big Ten in scoring last season as a junior averaging 23.3 points per game, is looking forward to next season when eight players return including four juniors and three sophomores.  “I think the sky is the limit,” said Banham who will be the team’s only senior.  “We have a bunch of really good girls, and really good girls coming in.”

Banham is dating men’s team junior guard Andre Hollins.  What did Hollins say after the Gophers won the NIT championship earlier this month?  “He was very excited,” Banham answered.  “All he kept chanting was N-I-T champs. Clearly, he was very happy.”

The Gophers women’s team hasn’t earned an invitation to the NCAA tournament since Banham has been at Minnesota.  Hollins has played in one NCAA tournament, two years ago.  What if both teams made deep tourney runs next year?  “That would be awesome,” Banham said.  “I think that would be the best way for both of us to go out.”

For the third straight season—and for the eighth time in the last nine years—the  MIAC attracted more fans to its football games than any other conference in NCAA Division III, according to information released recently by the league. The conference led Division III in both total and average attendance per game for the year 2013. A total of 160,482 fans attended the 48 football games hosted by the MIAC’s nine schools, an average of 3,343 fans per game.

Saint John’s led the nation in attendance per game (7,364) for the 12th time in the last 13 years.  In total attendance Bethel (38,054) and the Johnnies (36,822) finished third and fourth respectively.   

 

U Coordinator Raves about WR Recruits

April 14, 2014 - (0) comments

  

The statistics make a point.

Last season the Gophers had only 12 touchdown receptions in 13 games.  Five were caught by redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams, and five more came from senior wide receiver Derrick Engel.  Freshman wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky and junior tight end Drew Goodger each caught a touchdown pass.

The 2013 Gophers were last in the Big Ten Conference in touchdown passes.  Not only that but Engel has used up his eligibility, leaving Minnesota with one wide receiver, Wolitarsky, who caught a touchdown pass last season.  As the Gophers went through their spring practices, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover watched the returning wide receivers and saw improvement—although none of them caught more than two passes or had long gains in the annual spring game on Saturday.

Competition makes players better and not only do the Gophers returnees have each other to face but they’re aware of three freshman wide receivers who will join the team next season—Melvin Holland, Isaiah Gentry and Conner Krizancic.

“I think our receivers know we recruited three phenomenal freshmen,” Limegrover told Sports Headliners in late March.  “Those kids are going to be able to come in and compete right away.

“Those guys who are here understand they have an advantage because they’re here and they’re getting those reps and doing those things. …I’ve seen them take a step up as far as how they’re trying to approach things and what they’re (supposed) to do now because they know some young guys are gonna come and be pushing them.”

Holland is from Ashburn, Virginia, Gentry from Cincinnati and Krizancic is from Mentor, Ohio. Limegrover believes their commitment to attend Minnesota represents a recruiting milestone for the Gophers.

“We’re really, really fortunate,” Limegrover said.  “Those are guys that in the past wouldn’t have made their way to Minnesota—that (would) have gotten gobbled up by somebody else and we would have been left trying to find the scraps at the bottom of the heap.  The stars aligned for us recruiting those three kids and we’re pretty excited about them.”

Limegrover has been an assistant coach for Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill for 15 years.  He admits being as excited about Holland, Gentry and Krizancic as any recruits he’s been involved with.

“Yeah, you know why?  Because they were all three kids that when we looked at them we said, ‘These are legit guys that can come in and they can make us a different offense as soon as we can get them up to speed.  As soon as they can get themselves on the field.’ …”

The Gophers want to improve their 2013 scoring offense of 25.7 points per game, second to last in the Big Ten.  Minnesota’s total offense of 343.3 yards per game also ranked 11th in the 12 team Big Ten.  Whether it’s the quarterback position, wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs, the offense is being targeted for improvement in 2014.

“We need more playmakers,” Limegrover said.  “We need more guys that can threaten opponents in a lot of ways.”

Any offense starts with the quarterback.  Philip Nelson, who threw nine of the 12 touchdown passes last season, has transferred to Rutgers leaving Mitch Leidner as the No. 1 QB.

Leidner, a redshirt sophomore next fall, threw three touchdown passes last season.  He was a part-time starter but that experience is valuable while none of the quarterbacks behind him has ever played in a game for the Gophers.  Limegrover feels “good about the group of guys” he has but admits not having the experience of Nelson, who was a starter for two seasons, presents a challenge.

“It would be great (to have him) but nobody on our staff begrudges Philip because he had to make a decision that was best for him,” Limegrover said.  “We all understand that and we wish him all the best.  Of course you feel a little better having more experienced guys at every position, but at the same time you also want guys that want to be there. …”

Worth Noting 

Ra’Shede Hagemans Washburn High School football coach, Giovan Jenkins, will be among his guests at the NFL Draft in New York on May 8.  Hageman, the former Gopher defensive lineman, could be selected in the first round.  The NFL covers expenses for up to five guests of a high potential draft choice, Jenkins told Sports Headliners.

Expect an announcement today or later this week that Adam Weber will be joining a Canadian Football League team.  The former Gophers quarterback has been unable to receive a commitment from the NFL including this spring with the Bears and he told Sports Headliners he’s headed to Canada but wouldn’t identify the team yet.  “I just want to play,” he said.

Ex-Gopher tight end Matt Spaeth, now with the Steelers, was in Minneapolis the last few days.  Gophers coach Jerry Kill invited Spaeth to attend team meetings.  “He’s awesome,” Spaeth said of Kill.

During Saturday’s Gophers spring intrasquad game 6-foot-9 tight end Nate Wozniak lined up next to 6-foot-9 offensive right tackle Jonah Pirsig.  The Gophers may not play a team next fall that positions two players almost 7-feet tall next to one another.

Former 1965 Gophers All-American forward Lou Hudson died last week but will be remembered forever by those who saw him play.  The 6-foot-5 Hudson, who averaged 24.8 points per game as a junior, had athleticism and basketball skills that exceeded perhaps anyone who ever played for Minnesota.  He just teased defenders with his smooth movement and ability to score, both away from and near the basket.  He had the skill to play defense, too, but it was on offense that he stirred Gophers fans including after a broken right wrist forced him to play with a cast.  He lit up opponents with his left hand and brought down the “Barn.”

Ryan James from GopherIllustrated.com wrote Friday that new Gophers basketball commit Gaston Diedhiou, 6-9, 225, is an inside player offensively but has the ability to defend on the perimeter.  He also reported Diedhiou, who is from the Canary Islands by way of Senegal, will be 21 when he plays his first game as a freshman next fall.

New Gophers women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings has been an assistant or head coach at seven schools since 2000.  Minnesota senior associate athletic director Beth Goetz, who oversees women’s basketball, told Sports Headliners she isn’t worried about Stollings having a brief tenure with the Gophers.

“Honestly, I don’t have any concern at all,” Goetz said.  “If you look at her track record, every move she’s made has been up the ladder.  She’s put herself in a position to coach at the highest level and the best institutions.  Personally, I am not sure I think there’s a better place to be than the Big Ten and at the University of Minnesota.”

Goetz is impressed with Stollings in multiple ways including recruiting.  Stollings has put together top-45 national recruiting classes in the past and attracted two top-100 recruits.  “Her history shows she’s been great at recruiting,” Goetz said.

The WNBA Draft is tonight but Lynx owner Glen Taylor told Sports Headliners he expects his franchise will obtain players who will develop later rather than contribute next season.  The Lynx have the No. 12 and 15 draft choices.

Media and sports executives applauded the recent announcement that Saint Paul native Bill Robertson will be the new WCHA commissioner succeeding Bruce McLeod who called the hire a “home run.”  Look for Robertson, a former executive with the Wild, to relocate the league offices from Denver to downtown Saint Paul.

Robertson graduated from Cretin High School in 1979 with Saint Paul mayor Chris Coleman who attended last week’s news conference announcing the new commissioner.  Robertson, who begins his position in mid-May, referred to Coleman as one of the school’s great soccer players.  The mayor interrupted and quipped, “I am beginning to question the (commissioner selection) decision.”

The Wild sold out its 25th consecutive game last night at Xcel Energy Center. The local NHL team has sold out 34 of 41 regular season home games.  The Wild lost to the Predators in Minnesota’s final regular season game of the year last night and opens its playoff series with the Avalanche in Denver on Thursday evening.

Wild single game playoff tickets went on sale Saturday and the club is expected to play in front of sellout home crowds during the postseason including for next Monday night’s home opener.  A limited number of tickets will be available for purchase this week.  Check the team’s website, Wild.com, for more information early in the week.

The Twins swept their three-game series with the Royals by winning 4-3 yesterday despite having only five hits.  Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, who had two hits in four at bats, stole his first base since August 26, 2012.  Mauer’s 31st birthday is Saturday.

The A’s team that swept the Twins last week at Target Field is predicted by Sports Illustrated to play in the World Series representing the American League.  In the magazine’s March 31 baseball issue S.I. projected the A’s will lose to the Nationals in the World Series.  The A’s are 9-1 against the Twins since the start of the 2013 season.

 

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