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U Looks on Track with Jaxon Howard

May 17, 2022 - (0) comments

 

How are the Golden Gophers doing in pursuit of the state’s No. 1 football prospect in the class of 2023?  “I think Minnesota truly is in the thick of it for Jaxon (Howard),” Ryan Burns told Sports Headliners Monday.

Burns is the Gopher Illustrated and 247Sports authority who tracks U football year round.  Howard, a potential college tight end or defensive lineman in college, has LSU, Miami and Minnesota among his preferred destinations.  The Robbinsdale Cooper star will make official campus visits to all three schools next month, per Burns. And yesterday on Twitter Howard announced those three programs and Michigan comprise his final four list.

Jaxon and his dad Willie Howard, the Cooper coach and a former NFL defensive lineman, have a close relationship so that could be a factor in the college choice.  As a hometown prospect, Jaxon has witnessed positive developments with the Gopher program including two of the last three seasons winning nine games or more.  Hopkins alum Boye Mafe stayed home to play defensive end for the Gophers and was drafted in the NFL’s second round this spring.

The Gophers also have four verbal commits from Minnesotans in their class of 2023.  Jerome Williams, Reese Trip, Greg Johnson and Martin Owusu are the state’s No. 2, 4, 5 and 6th ranked prep players for 2023, per 247Sports.  Knowing the state’s better prep prospects appear Minnesota-bound could influence Howard.

Burns said 2023 commit Darius Taylor, the running back from Walled Lake, Michigan who Iowa and Wisconsin offered, is friends with Howard and has been encouraging him to become a Gopher.  The two spent time together at the spring game and Taylor has been pitching on social media for Howard to stay home.

Head coach P.J. Fleck and his assistants are recruiting now.  After a short break around Memorial Day, recruiting intensifies for power five schools like Minnesota with the staging of camps during June.  The Gophers will host two camps in June, according to Burns, and will attend others out of the state to evaluate talent.

Burns thinks Anthony Brown, the four-star wide receiver from Ohio who was a prize verbal commit before backing off his pledge, will be interested in earning an offer from Ohio State in June when he attends a Buckeyes’ camp.  Brown’s brother Michael BrownStephens plays wide receiver for the Gophers and Anthony was wooed at the U spring game, but Burns isn’t wagering he will take up residence in Dinkytown. “They’re in the mix. (But) I don’t anticipate a reunion between the two parties. …”

The Gophers passed the football less than any other power five school last season and that was a red flag to Brown. If he doesn’t commit elsewhere before Signing Day in December, Brown could be watching the Gophers this fall to see if they revive their passing attack.

Perhaps the Gophers will end up with high three-star wide receiver recruit Tamarcus Cooley from North Carolina.  “Minnesota has been pushing for him tremendously hard,” Burns said.

Ryan Burns

Gopher assistants Greg Harbaugh Jr. (he has North Carolina ties) and Matt Simon are in pursuit of Cooley who is expected to visit campus next month.  “I think the offer list (for Cooley) would be just as comparable to someone like Anthony Brown,” Burns said.  “I think it will be very interesting to see how much of an impact they can make on that June official visit with…Tamarcus Cooley.”

Burns also said Simons watched Georgia WR Jarvis Hayes work out recently and the Gophers have offered a scholarship.  Hayes has shown his athleticism with a high jump of 6-feet four-inches, per Burns, and the Gophers “pretty badly” want him.

Hayes and West Fargo defensive lineman Karter Menz are two names Burns mentioned when asked who may make verbal commitments to Minnesota during the summer.  Nebraska has also offered a scholarship to Menz.

247Sports ranks Elinneus Davis from Moorhead as the state’s No. 3 prospect and the defensive lineman’s college offers include the Gophers and Washington. He could project as a 300-plus nose tackle on the next level.  “Academics are going to be important to him,” Burns said.  “I know Minnesota wants him tremendously bad.  I think they’ve got a pretty legitimate shot at him.”

The Gophers’ on-campus camps will be June 5 and 15, with official visit weekends for recruits June 10 and 17.  Burns doesn’t expect any verbal commits during the busy month of June, but that will change in the summer and fall.

Worth Noting

What was the biggest positive Burns took from watching spring practice? “The passing game looks like they know what they want to be,” he said.

Burns’ evaluation is that under 2021 offensive coordinator Mike Sanford the Gophers continually tried something different in the passing game.  With the return of previous coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca the expectation of Burns is a return to the RPO passing game “that was so prolific in 2019.”

Major concern? Burns wants to see the emergence of playmaker receivers beyond senior Chris Autman-Bell now in his sixth season with the program.  The candidates are Dylan Wright, Michael Brown-Stephens, Daniel Jackson and Brevyn SpannFord.  “I just want to see with my own two eyes that when the lights come on Saturdays that those four guys are ready to help Tanner (QB Morgan) and his passing game take a step forward.”

Worth watching too in fall camp and early games will be the status of veteran running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts.  Both were injured and missed most of last season, and then had no risky contact in the spring while they recovered.

Ibrahim is recovering from an Achilles tear and that’s serious business for a college running back, although he always relied more on his strength, toughness and savvy in finding holes than he did speed.  He does need to be able to make decisive cuts as he did in the past as a 2020 All-American.   “I am hopeful we see him at least 90 percent,” Burns said. “I think that’s realistic.”

Potts’ injury was never publicly disclosed but Burns said it didn’t involve soft tissue. He predicts a “100 percent” likelihood of Potts being able to perform as in the past.

Wishing the best for former Minnesota Mr. Basketball chair Ken Lien in his convalescence following 10-plus days in the hospital.

The postseason results for men’s pro sports franchises in Minneapolis-St. Paul has been discouraging for years and the first round exits by the Wild and Timberwolves this spring add to the woes.  Check the records back to October 1, 2004 and the combined postseason winning percentage of the Timberwolves, Twins, Vikings and Wild is 28 percent—32 wins, 71 losses.

In Game One of the AL Division Series on October 5, 2004 the Twins defeated the Yankees in New York 2-0.  Since then the Twins haven’t won a postseason game, compiling 18 consecutive losses and a 1-19 record.

The Timberwolves are 3-8 during the period referenced, with two playoff appearances.  The Vikings 4-7 and the Wild 24-48.

The Vikings announced Monday they have released a player with one of the best football names I recall: linebacker Tuf Borland.  He played in two games last season for the Purple.

 

Twins Follow Potential MLB Changes

May 15, 2022 - (0) comments

 

Everyone who cares about Major League Baseball knows the game has flaws in the 21st century that merit review. And that’s exactly what commissioner Rob Manfred and his competition committee is working on, with changes perhaps coming as soon as next season.

Already in place is an audio communication system enabling catchers to give signals to pitchers. A high percentage of the 30 MLB clubs, including the Twins, are using the system that improves pace of play. There is no confusion about what pitch the catcher is calling.

“Yeah, we think it is great,” Twins’ president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners. “We think it adds more pace. We think it allows our pitchers to get into more of a rhythm.”

MLB is challenged to speed up its game both in pace and duration. Games are almost always over three hours long and commonly clock in past four hours. Last season MLB fans waited on average four minutes and seven seconds to see the baseball put in play, according to the May issue of Sports Illustrated.

There is a rule on the books that says the pitcher is to deliver the ball within 12 seconds when the bases are empty, but the rule isn’t enforced. Adding a visible pitch timer like a shot clock in basketball would get players and umpires on board. It’s speculative as to how much time would be stipulated—perhaps 15 seconds with no base runners, 20 with runners.

Dave St. Peter (photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins)

“We’re in favor of pitch timers,” St. Peter said. “We’re in favor of anything that is going to create more pace to our game, move games along so that players, staff and ultimately fans maybe spend a little less time over the course of any given game.

“We’ve seen it work well in the minor leagues. Almost all of our players have experienced it in the minor leagues and viewed that as a good thing.”

Analytics provides sophisticated data that has changed the game including infield shifts that position defenders in the most effective spots to take away hits. It’s been speculated that today’s .280 hitter would have a .300 batting average years ago, with shifts contributing to the decline.

St. Peter likes the proposed change of mandating only two fielders on each side of second base. He said there is data showing the change will boost offense: “That more balls will find green grass and ultimately more runners will be on base—and running maybe from first to third, or from second to home, and that should create more exciting plays in our game and allow our athletes to be athletes. I think that’s really the goal here.”

St. Peter is enthusiastic about the possibility of making the bases larger, thereby shortening the distances between bases. The art of base stealing is fading in MLB and this change could help reverse the trend. “I think it’s a player safety thing as well for infielders to get around the (the larger) base and avoid runners,” St. Peter said.

An automated ball-strike system, robot umpires if you will, could be coming soon. Advantages? Fans won’t leave the ballpark thinking their favorites got a raw deal on a crucial called third strike when replay showed it was ball four. Umpires don’t always make accurate calls but “Robo” will. An automated consistent strike zone may force pitchers to more often throw strikes, resulting in more balls in play.

Fan entertainment and enjoying the ballpark experience is very much on the mind of MLB leaders including St. Peter. He needs look no further than the state capitol where proposed bills about legalized sports betting are being debated. The future possibility of fans wagering on their phones at venues like Target Field could become reality, and soon.

It’s younger fans who will determine MLB’s future popularity. The interest, or absence of, is already in debate. They have different entertainment expectations than younger fans of even 10, 15 and 20 years ago. Those generations will become “ghost” fans if MLB doesn’t improve its product, making the game shorter, more lively and fun to watch. Technology can help on multiple fronts, including making games interactive for fans wagering at the stadium.

St. Peter expects the competition committee, that includes player representatives and MLB leaders, will make recommendations later this year regarding potential rules changes for 2023.

Worth Noting

Probably the best team in Wild history couldn’t advance in the postseason. The Blues made adjustments that worked and their players performed better than the Wild. Down 2-1 in the series, the Blues outscored Minnesota 15-5 in the final three games.

A hockey insider predicted the Wild will try to improve the roster in the offseason by adding veteran forwards who are physical. The Blues are a physical team and the Wild’s lack of muscle showed in the series including when Minnesota’s forechecking stalled.

The source predicted the Wild will find the salary cap room to re-sign forward Kevin Fiala who was second in points during the regular season but didn’t score a goal in the playoffs. Salary cap juggling could result in the Wild moving on from defenseman Matt Dumba who is signed through next season and expected to earn about $5.2 million.

Fiala reportedly made $5.1 million this season and as a restricted free agent this summer could command a three-year deal at perhaps $7 million per year.

Knowledgeable about the Wild since the franchise’s inception over 20 years ago, the source predicted it’s “50-50” whether the front office brings back 37-year-old unrestricted free agent goal Marc-Andre Fleury. A deal could hinge on whether Fleury is willing to accept an incentive-packed deal because the Wild are unlikely to commit big money to two goalies. Cam Talbot reportedly earns $3.6 million and Fleury makes almost double that sum.

Talbot, BTW, can’t be happy about sitting on the bench and watching Fleury play all but one game in the playoffs against the Blues.

Word is, per the source, the Wild will raise ticket prices for next season. The Wild finished the regular season with a franchise-best ever 53-22-7 record.

The USHL’s Madison Capitols, the lowest seed in the league’s playoffs and owned by former Wild star Ryan Suter, is in the Clark Cup Finals against the Sioux City Musketeers that start Sunday afternoon.

Given his age and preference for the highest profile of tournaments, it could be that 46-year-old golf legend Tiger Woods will never compete in the 3M Open in suburban Blaine. The British Open will be played this year July 14-17 and Woods is committed. The 3M Open is July 18-24.

Wayzata High School alum Karl Gregor is the New England Small College Athletic Conference men’s tennis Coach of the Year after his Tufts team went 17-2 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection for the first time since 2017.

 

Lou Nanne: Wild Need Goalie Change

May 11, 2022 - (0) comments

 

Lou Nanne told Sports Headliners this morning he believes the Minnesota Wild should change goaltenders for tomorrow night’s Game Six against the St. Louis Blues.

The Wild trail three games to two in the best of seven NHL playoff series and will be on the road Thursday night in a must-win situation. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has started the previous five games for Minnesota including last night’s 5-2 loss at Xcel Energy. “He just looked like he was fighting the puck a little bit and not controlling rebounds like he could have,” Nanne said.

In the series the 37-year-old Fleury, a former Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, has a 3.04 GAA and .906 save percentage.

Goalie Cam Talbot was clearly the No. 1 goalie until Fleury was acquired in a late season trade from the Chicago Blackhawks. Nanne believes it’s overdue to insert Talbot into the lineup. “I just think maybe he might give them a shot in the arm,” Nanne said.

Talbot hasn’t played since April 28 and Nanne hopes a layoff won’t impact the 34-year-old if Wild coach Dean Evason makes a change at goalie. Can Talbot play at a high level Thursday night?

“You can never tell until he does it, but what are your choices?” Nanne said. “…I just wish he would have played earlier, that’s all. I just think Talbot was a guy that earned the spot…the way he played.”

Talbot started 48 regular season games for the Wild and was more than solid with a 2.76 GAA in a year that saw him play in the NHL All-Star Game. In the view of Nanne and others, Talbot’s season earned him the opportunity to start the series. But Nanne admires Fleury, too, and he realizes it’s difficult to decide on goalies when resumes of success are similar.

“I just like to see when you’ve got two good goaltenders, try to find the one that is really going to bring you through. It’s a tough decision. Nobody knows when it’s going to be right.”

Kevin Fiala, the Wild’s No. 3 goal scorer during the regular season and second in points, hasn’t found the net in the series. Nanne referred to Fiala as a “gigantic” key in tomorrow night’s game. “They need his help,” Nanne said.

Fiala appears to be pressing and not playing like himself. “He’s so anxious he’s not playing as smoothly as he did,” Nanne said. “I still believe in him. …Hopefully he’s going to come through next game.”

Kirill Kaprizov

In the loss last night, second-year left wing Kirill Kaprizov scored Minnesota’s two goals on power plays. He was in the mix most of the night with potential goals and playmaking despite St. Louis players trying to knock him on his butt or shoving a stick toward his face. “He was absolutely spectacular,” said Nanne who labels Kaprizov the franchise’s best player ever.

Considering the quality of the opponent, the pressure of the playoffs, the physicality and strategies of the game, Nanne said he’s never seen a player perform better than the 25-year-old Kaprizov did last evening.

Nanne has closely followed the NHL for more than six decades. Now the godfather of Minnesota hockey, he was an All-American defenseman for the Gophers, and later a player, coach, GM and president with the Minnesota North Stars who relocated to Dallas after the 1992-1993 season.

Worth Noting

Shortly after the Twins signed shortstop Carlos Correa to the highest average annual salary for an infielder in MLB history, team president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners how impressed he is with the All-Star’s character. The Puerto Rico native cares about his teammates and wants to help them, including young players he can influence.

Bob Nightengale of USA Today wrote Monday about the great start to the season Jeremy Peña is having as the rookie replaces Correa as the Astros’ shortstop. “Carlos has been great to me since the first day (two years ago) I met him,” Peña told Nightengale. “He helped me out so much. A mentor to me. …”

The 2022 Vikings’ draft has been second-guessed but received some praise Monday from Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz also with USA Today. He wrote about top 10 steals from the 2022 NFL Draft and he first profiled cornerback Andrew Booth, whom the Vikings selected late in the second round. Injuries have slowed Booth since high school but he could have the skills worthy of going in the first round.

Condolences to the family and many friends of former Golden Gophers defensive end Leon Trawick who passed away Friday. The Washington D.C. native was a sophomore contributor to the 1967 team that won the Big Ten championship and he later became a Minneapolis attorney.

A 1969 Academic All-Big Ten selection, Leon battled brain cancer and was in hospice before passing. An email trail from former U athletes praised him as a great friend.

Former Minnesota Mr. Basketball Tyus Jones, who has a home in the Minneapolis area, could be a coveted free agent this summer after impressing in the playoffs this spring and averaging a career-best 8.7 points in the regular season. The seven-year point guard makes minimal mental and physical mistakes. He could start tonight for the Grizzlies in the absence of Ja Morant, with Memphis trailing the Warriors 3-1 in their playoff series.

Lindsay Whalen, the U women’s basketball coach who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame September 10 for her legendary career as a player, turned 40 on Monday.

John Anderson

Legendary Gopher baseball coach John Anderson, now in his 41st season, will be 67 next Monday.

Anderson’s redshirt junior right-hander, Aidan Maldonado, is the co-Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. The Rosemount, Minnesota native pitched a career-high seven innings Sunday, allowing five hits and one earned run while striking out eight in a 3-1 win over Nebraska.

Peter King and his identical twin Richard were the first batboys for the Twins in 1961 after the franchise relocated from Washington D.C. Sorry to learn that Peter, from Prior Lake, recently passed away.

Phil Anderson, GM at North Oaks Golf Club and Dave Tentis, PGA head pro at Troy Burne Golf Club, offer their views on the Upper Midwest golf industry as the latest guests on the “Behind the Game” program seen on local cable markets and YouTube. The show is co-hosted by Agile Marketing owner Patrick Klinger and USHL commissioner Bill Robertsonhttps://youtu.be/fZsxVOVmoFk

 

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