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Vikes Look ‘Cooked’ with No Dalvin

December 29, 2019 - (0) comments

 

The Vikings, 10-5, play their final regular season game today in Minneapolis against the Bears, and then start preparations for next weekend’s opening playoff game. The Vikings, a No. 6 seed in the NFC, are unlikely to win in the postseason without running back Dalvin Cook, whose shoulder injury sidelined him in the December 23 loss to the Packers and will keep him off the field today.

Cook, the 24-year-old third season playmaker extraordinaire, has produced a breakout performance in 2019, and the guess is he will be available next weekend. He is clearly the offense’s most indispensable player with his ability to gain difficult yards with minimal blocking, and also outrun tacklers. With 1,135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns (no other Viking is even in double digits), he is among the NFL’s leading runners.

Injuries sidelined Cook for 17 games the past two seasons but the team’s coaches knew what a special playmaker they had in the former second round draft choice (he excels as a wide receiver, too). That’s why after seeing the limitations of quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2018, the offense was refocused to emphasize the running game. Using zone blocking with a run game featuring Cook, the Vikings have improved their offense and at times Cousins has flourished.

But against the Packers, without Cook, the offense was a dud, producing only seven first downs. The Packers kept their defensive ends “home” and discouraged the rollouts and bootlegs that have worked well for the passing game this fall. The offensive line, including the left side with tackle Riley Reiff and guard Pat Elflein, had a long night in the 23-10 loss.

Schemes are one thing but they are a lot more successful with playmakers, and Cook is one of the NFL’s best. Football is the ultimate team game but Cook is so fast, strong, and elusive he can make plays on his own.

“The clock in your head is saying this play might be over, but it probably isn’t,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said in a December 2 Sports Illustrated story. “Go to the next level, get that last shove in there and give this kid a crease, because you just never know with him.”

At times Cousins looked anxious without Cook and a successful running game in the Packer loss. The quarterback has a history of not being able to carry a team late in the season. The offensive line, while improved over its most recent predecessors, is no award winner. Star wide receiver Adam Thielen, who missed multiple games with a hamstring problem, is trying to find his way back into production. The Vikings have offensive issues as they near the playoffs. They can’t afford to be without their Cook.

Worth Noting

T-shirt seen at a local health club last week predicted the Packers are going to the next Super Bowl and showed the Lombardi Trophy. The front of the shirt also said the Vikings are bowl bound, with a toilet illustration.

The 2010 Packers were a No. 6 seed, won all their playoff road games and emerged as 2011 Super Bowl champions.

The Minnesota Wild may learn as soon as Tuesday whether the NHL is choosing Target Field as the playing site for the January 1, 2021 NHL Winter Classic. Wild owner Craig Leipold told Sports Headliners awhile ago his franchise is competing for the prestigious outdoor game that has never been held in Minnesota.

The 2020 Winter Classic is at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and an announcement about the 2021 playing site will come next month. The Wild is competing with another city (name not publicized) for the game. The opponent for the Target Field game might be either Chicago, Colorado, St. Louis or Winnipeg.

JD Spielman

Speculation is that elusive wide receiver and kick returner JD Spielman, the former Eden Prairie star and 2015 Minnesota prep Mr. Football, might transfer from Nebraska to the Gophers. Maybe so, but Sports Headliners is told Spielman won’t have his degree until next summer and couldn’t be a graduate transfer until then.

Cincinnati.com reports former Gophers deputy athletics director John Cunningham will earn $475,000 in base salary as the University of Cincinnati’s new athletics director. That is reportedly $77K less than previous Bearcats boss and now USC AD Mike Bohn. Gophers AD Mark Coyle’s compensation is $850,000. Cunningham oversaw the Minnesota football and men’s basketball programs, and he had worked with Coyle at Syracuse before both came to Minneapolis in 2016.

Chris Snow, the former Minnesota Wild beat writer for the Star Tribune who segued his career path into an NHL front office career, is in the early stages of battling ALS. Snow, who initially worked for the Wild after leaving the Minneapolis newspaper, is assistant general manager of the Calgary Flames.

The losing ways of the Timberwolves (lost 12 of their last 13 games) likely won’t threaten the job security of first-year head coach Ryan Saunders. But if Saunders were to be let go during the season by Gersson Rosas, the first year president of basketball operations, he could consider Staples, Minnesota native Dave Joerger, a veteran NBA head coach who was fired by the Sacramento Kings after last season.

Another option if a change was made during the season might be naming an assistant on the Timberwolves staff as interim head coach,, perhaps Pablo Prigioni. In the spring Rosas could review a list of candidates including lead Houston Rockets assistant Elston Turner. The two worked together several years ago in the Rockets organization.

Twins president Dave St. Peter speaks to the CORES lunch group Thursday, January 9 at the Bloomington Event Center, 1114 American Blvd. More information is available by contacting Jim Dotseth, dotsethj@comcast.net. Reservations must be made by January 6. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

Retiring Minnetonka High School football coach Dave Nelson is one of four national candidates for the American Football Coaches Association’s Power of Influence Award that will be given out at next month’s convention.

 

U Takes Recruits from the ‘Big Boys’

December 17, 2019 - (0) comments

 

University of Minnesota head football coach P.J. Fleck announces on Wednesday names of players accepting scholarships for his 2020 recruiting class. Perhaps most meaningful to fans of the program is Minnesota persuaded expected signees to pass on offers from high profile teams like LSU and Texas, and verbally commit to become Gophers.

Linebacker Jaqwondis Burns, a Texas native from IMG Academy in Florida, switched his commitment from Mississippi to Minnesota this month. Beating out an SEC school like Ole Miss is impressive, but there’s more good news. Gopher recruiting authority Ryan Burns told Sports Headliners that last week the Texas Longhorns sent head coach Tom Herman and four assistants in pursuit of Jaqwondis.

“Anytime you are able to beat Texas for a Texas kid… it’s good. I mean it’s really good,” said Burns, publisher of GopherIllustrated.com.

Another recent commit is Florida wide receiver Douglas Emilien. Joe Brady, the passing game coordinator for No. 1 ranked LSU, said in the fall the Tigers wanted Emilien, according to Burns. Emilien, though, is expected to join the Gophers, a program that surprised college football this fall by going 10-2, and tying Wisconsin for first in the Big Ten West with 7-2 records.

“You don’t get him without 10 wins,” Burns said. “You don’t get him without (Gophers) Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson finishing No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big Ten in receiving (yards).”

Johnson, a senior, will be a big loss to the receiving corps next season but Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell will return as quality juniors. Filling a third spot might be Emilien, or another 2020 verbal commit, Daniel Jackson from Kansas who had offers from Wisconsin and Iowa State.

Linebacker Itayvion Brown from Missouri could have chosen a number of “helmet schools,” as Ryan Burns refers to the better programs in college football. He said Brown turned down LSU, Iowa, Missouri, TCU, and Texas A&M to commit to the Gophers.

Jaqwondis Burns is among a half dozen or so expected signees who Burns believes will enroll at Minnesota in January and have the benefit of winter football preparation and spring practice. Others may include New York City wide receiver Justin Bellido, Ohio defensive end Gage Keys, German native and defensive end Melle Kreuder, Anoka linebacker Cody Lindenberg, and Kansas running back Ky Thomas.

Thomas is last in the alphabetical listing above but he was the first name Burns mentioned when asked who among the 20-plus verbal Gopher recruits was most coveted. He refers to Thomas as “the real deal,” and he mentions the impressive stats of the Topeka, Kansas prospect, who is about 5-11, 200 pounds.

As a senior Thomas rushed for 3,027 yards, with 35 rushing touchdowns. Career totals included over 7,000 rushing yards and more than 90 touchdowns. The Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year is the only running back Fleck is taking in the 2020 recruiting class.

Ryan Burns

“What makes Ky really special is he is incredibly tough to bring down,” Burns said. “He doesn’t allow you to get good hits on him. He is really good at staying on his feet and going through contact. He is really good at making sure that he can make you miss in the open field, (and) he can make you miss at the line of scrimmage. He can get north and south, very, very quickly.”

Burns has a lot of praise for the playmaking ability of the other Gopher recruit from Kansas, Daniel Jackson who Burns said had 74 receptions for 1,500 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior. The Kansas City area prospect isn’t a big target at about 5-11 but he has quality hands and other skills. “He can make you really think about what route he is going to run next, and he is incredibly elusive in the open field, just like Kai is,” Burns said.

Thomas, like Jackson, could receive considerable playing time next season. The Gophers lose seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in their three-man running back rotation that does return Mohamed Ibrahim, who will be a junior next fall.

Minnesota’s lead recruiter on Thomas and Jackson was assistant coach Joe Harasymiak, who is assigned to the Kansas region. Harasymiak joined the Gophers in December of 2018 after leaving Maine where he had been head coach.

Other recruits in addition to Emilien, Jackson and Thomas who Burns mentioned might earn playing time next season include linebackers Brown, Jaqwondis Burns and Lindenberg, defensive linemen Keys and Danny Striggow (Orono). Lindenberg will be transitioning from safety and receiver at Anoka. He also might be the steal of the recruiting class, per Ryan Burns.

The most coveted prep linebacker in the state is Minnehaha Academy’s Kaden Johnson, who likely will sign with Nebraska. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he (Lindenberg) ends up better than Kaden Johnson…every time I have seen Cody he’s been incredibly impressive to me,” Burns said.

Burns expects the Gophers to sign in the range of 23 to 25 players for their 2020 class. As of earlier this week, he ranked Minnesota’s class No. 26 nationally, sixth in the Big Ten and third in the West Division behind Iowa and Wisconsin, two teams that have historically been the division’s leader.

“You have to be recruiting like Iowa and Wisconsin are, and I think Minnesota is finally at that tier,” Burns said.

 

No Twins Are Trade Untouchables

December 15, 2019 - (0) comments

 

MLB’s Winter Meetings have come and gone with no big moves by the Minnesota Twins to improve their roster. This doesn’t come as a surprise since the organization under the Pohlad family ownership has consistently been deliberate in making outside personnel changes, whether by free agency or trade.

While some teams used the gathering at the Winter Meetings to improve their clubs, there is still a lot of time to see what develops in Major League Baseball before next season including with the Twins. In an interview with Sports Headliners, team president Dave St. Peter spoke about the ongoing process to improve his roster. “We are obviously open-minded as to how we get better,” St. Peter said while indicating the possibility of acquiring players via free agency or trade.

The Twins improved so much last season they transformed themselves from mediocre into one of MLB’s better clubs. The Twins can court potential newcomers with a storyline that not only includes a talented team but also features a players manager in Rocco Baldelli.

“We think our story has gotten incrementally better over the course of the last 18 months,” St. Peter said. “We think that we have a great, compelling ball club for 2020 and beyond, and we are optimistic that one way or another we’re going to be able to add pitching.”

St. Peter mentioned pitching without being prompted, an indication of how Minnesota has prioritized finding offseason help on the mound. The Twins reined down home runs last season, setting a MLB record with 307. Every off season story on how the Twins will get better in 2020 and go beyond AL Central champs to a successful postseason run has Minnesota needing to improve the starting staff.

Who will the Twins offer up in trades for either pitchers or other players? St. Peter said the club doesn’t so much target specific individuals in their organization for potential trades as it does looking at where the organization has strength and depth. Although he didn’t mention left fielder Eddie Rosario as trade bait, Sportingnews.com reported three days ago other teams are asking about Rosario, and the Twins do have a terrific minor league prospect and possible replacement in outfielder Alex Kirilloff. It appears sooner (perhaps next year) or later Minnesota will need to make room for the 22-year-old Kirilloff who has a .317 minor league career batting average.

When asked, St. Peter couldn’t think of any Twins currently under contract who have no-trade clauses in their contracts. Does he believe any Twins are untouchable? “No, I don’t think so,” he answered. “…The reality of it is, there’s probably some players that practically speaking you’re just probably not going to move because I’m not sure that another team could offer us enough.”

Falvey & Levine

Twins front office personnel decision makers Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have won St. Peter’s confidence since being hired in 2016. St. Peter said their relationships with other front office leaders are so important to the Twins as they search to make a team with 101 wins last season even better.

Although, loaded with offense a rumor is the Twins will sign free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson who hit 37 home runs last season for the Atlanta Braves. His acquisition would presumably send Miguel Sano from third base to first base and improve the infield defense.

Not referencing Donaldson, St. Peter was asked about the idea of moving Sano to first base. “It’s a possibility. We have not made that decision,” St. Peter said. “Right now Miguel is still penciled in at third base and we will be fine with that if we go to spring training. He is a difference-maker…particularly at that position. Yeah, we have to be open-minded for ways to get better. We talked about our infield defense maybe being an area that we could shore up. …”

Worth Noting

Tickets are on sale for TwinsFest at Target Field Friday, January 24 and Saturday, January 25. The annual event has typically been three days but next year will be held over two days. The Twins will be celebrating their 60th season of play since moving to Minnesota as the Washington Senators.

St. Peter is a college football fan and enjoys travelling to games. This fall he saw a game at Mississippi and last year was at Georgia.

LSU’s Joe Burrow won the famed Heisman Trophy last night, the award annually honoring college football’s best player. Bruce Smith is the only Golden Gopher who ever won the Heisman, doing so in 1941. In 1953 Minnesota’s Paul Giel finished second in Heisman balloting and seven years later the Gophers’ Tom Brown also was voted runner-up. In 1962 balloting Minnesota’s Bobby Bell finished third in the voting.

Condolences to family and friends of former Gophers and South St. Paul hockey coach Doug Woog, who passed away Saturday afternoon. A beloved hockey leader for decades, the 75-year-old Woog had been dealing this year with health care issues including Parkinson’s disease.

Former Timberwolves superstar Kevin Garnett “is a central figure” in a new Adam Sandler movie, according to a story in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. In the film Uncut Gems Garnett seeks to acquire an Ethiopian black opal.

No one seems to know when, or if, former Lynx star Maya Moore will resume her career. She didn’t play last season and continues to focus on helping others via criminal justice reform.

 

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