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Look for Vikings GM, Coach News Soon

January 04, 2021 - (0) comments

 

What’s the future for Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer?

A source outside the organization told Sports Headliners that the franchise ownership will meet with both Spielman and Zimmer tomorrow (Tuesday). The source does not know what direction that meeting will take, including the possibility things remain status quo.

Another source close to the organization said the Wilf ownership is frustrated with the on-field results versus financial investment. The Vikings haven’t qualified for the NFL playoffs in two of the last three years—yet Minnesota has one of the league’s higher payrolls. Ownership has also invested extensively in stadium and practice facilities.

The second source said the only thing owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf are “concerned about is winning.” Although Spielman and Zimmer have worked for them since 2005 and 2014 respectively, the source said emotion including loyalty to the GM and head coach won’t drive a decision.

Mike Zimmer

Both Spielman and Zimmer received contract extensions last year that are believed to give them each three more years of security. Owners expressed confidence in the two men by extending their contracts and indicated they will trust their leadership into the future. If the Wilfs wanted to make a change, though, buying out Zimmer and Spielman won’t be a deterrent, with the source saying the owners will “pay anything to win.”

The Wilfs are passionate football fans and Zygi has talked openly about winning a Super Bowl. Before buying the Vikings, he was a devoted follower of the New York Giants decades ago. Now at almost 71 years old, he has to decide if he is satisfied with the direction and leadership of his team.

The Wilfs and others in their ownership group are high level business people who make thoughtful but efficient decisions. It seems all but certain that by the end of the week Vikings fans will know whether it’s status quo or there is major change coming in the organization.

Worth Noting

John Schneider, the University of St. Thomas alum and GM of the Seahawks, might be headed elsewhere, according to an online story yesterday by the Seattle Times. Schneider has long been praised for his work in helping make the Seahawks a consistent NFL contender but he doesn’t have final say on personnel, with that authority going to head coach Pete Carroll. Reports are Schneider could fill the Lions’ GM vacancy.

Gophers fans are hoping P.J. Fleck rumors about going elsewhere don’t become an annual annoyance. Talk emerged recently that an NFL team has interest.

Richard Pitino’s Gopher basketball team probably played its best game of the season last night in defeating Ohio State at Williams Arena, 77-60. Minnesota, 10-2, plays its next two games on the road, at Michigan Wednesday and at Iowa Sunday. In road losses to Illinois and Wisconsin the Gophers have been out scored by 39 points.

The Golden Dunkers, the men’s basketball support club for the Gophers, has a campaign to secure more followers on social media like Twitter so that the organization can have a custom URL on YouTube.

Who is the best player on the Twins? MLB.com says it’s third baseman Josh Donaldson in a story today ranking the best on each AL and NL team. Donaldson, the story says, “tends to alternate healthy seasons with injury-plagued ones. It’s the healthy-season turn.”

The Twins rank No. 5 among all teams, per a listing by MLB.com on Saturday. Clubs ahead of Minnesota in the power rankings are the Dodgers, Padres, Yankees and Braves.

It could be that Twins DH extraordinaire Nelson Cruz is waiting to see if the NL will use the designated hitter in 2021. A source said a decision on the DH may come by mid-January, and that will impact the number of suitors to sign Cruz to a new contract. The Twins seem likely to be a finalist.

It’s interesting that Wild general manager Bill Guerin didn’t appoint either Zach Parise or Ryan Suter as the team’s new captain. Jared Spurgeon will have that title while Parise and Suter remain alternate captains.

College hockey prominence is back in Minnesota with four of the state’s five Division I teams ranked in any top-10 polls. The undefeated 9-0 Gophers are the nation’s best team, according to many voters.

Local sports journalists Eric Nelson and Wally Langfellow debut their daily sports talk radio show today on AM 1440-KYCR in the Twin Cities. “Ten Thousand Takes” will air Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 1 p.m.

 

Ex-U Coach Previews Gophers-Badgers

December 30, 2020 - (0) comments

 

The University of Minnesota basketball team, playing at home, has defeated No. 4 ranked Iowa and No. 17 Michigan State in the last several days, but the Gophers must prove they can win big games on the road starting Thursday afternoon in Madison against Wisconsin, according to Jim Dutcher.

The 9-1 Gophers have played once on the road this season, experiencing a beat down at Illinois, 92-65.  Since then Minnesota has home wins against St. Louis in a nonconference game and the Big Ten Conference victories over Iowa and Michigan State. The Gophers’ surprising success has landed them at No. 21 in the latest AP ranking of the nation’s best teams.

Wisconsin, 8-2 and ranked No. 6 by the AP, lost to Maryland Monday night in Madison.  Dutcher, who coached the Gophers to a Big Ten title in 1982, remains a close follower of college basketball, and is optimistic about a Minnesota win in Madison if his former team shows up defensively.

“At home your offense will carry you,” Dutcher told Sports Headliners.  “On the road your defense has to carry you.  Those three-pointers that you make at home don’t go down quite as easy on the road.  Defense travels, offense doesn’t always travel, so I think just clamp down (Thursday). I don’t think Wisconsin is that hard to guard.  Their big guys are more perimeter big guys than post up.”

Jim Dutcher

Even with their undefeated record at home, the Gophers have experienced breakdowns defensively keeping opponents in games and certainly did against then No. 13 ranked Illinois. “Can they (the Gophers) bend their knees and stop somebody when they have to?” Dutcher asked. “Because a lot of conference games are going to come down to the last two minutes. Those are the games they didn’t win last year.  Those are the games I think they can win this year.”

Minnesota, 8-12 in league games in 2019-2020, lost 71-69 to the Badgers in Madison last March when Wisconsin was on its way to a Big Ten championship.  Earlier in the season, playing at Williams Arena, the Gophers defeated the Badgers 70-52, holding Wisconsin to under 30 percent field goal shooting. The Gophers made more than 40 percent of their field goals, including three-pointers.

The Badgers, as usual, are among the elite defensive teams in the country.  They are giving up the fewest points per game among Big Ten teams at 60.6, while the Minnesota average is 73.9.  Dutcher, though, offered a strategy for Thursday’s game:

“They (the Badgers) got beat inside by Maryland pretty soundly, and our center (Liam) Robbins is playing really good now so I think rather than start the offense at the three-point range, start the offense in the post.  I just feel they (the Gophers) got a great chance to go and beat Wisconsin.”

Dutcher believes the Gophers are capable of being Big Ten title contenders but to do it they have to be better offensively in road games than they were at Illinois. Against the Illini, the Gophers made only 27.5 percent of their field goals including 25 percent on three pointers.  That’s a different offense than Minnesota has shown at home scoring 90 points or more four times and topping 80 in seven games.

“They’re a great shooting team in Williams Arena,” Dutcher said.  “They weren’t a great shooting team in Illinois.   Hopefully they can get on somebody else’s floor and take their offense with them, but they’ve been impressive (this season).”

Minnesota’s nine victories are the most in the Big Ten.  The Gophers, 2-1 in the Big Ten, have overtime wins against a good St. Louis team and highly ranked Iowa.  In the Iowa game if a Hawkeye hadn’t missed two free throws in the closing minutes of regulation, Gopher junior point guard Marcus Carr wouldn’t have had the opportunity to send the game into overtime with a three-pointer with five seconds remaining.  It was also Carr who made a three-pointer with 31 seconds left in the game to pull Minnesota within 81-78 of Iowa.

And it was Carr who made the winning basket in an early season 67-64 win over Loyola Marymount.  Carr is averaging 24 points per game (third best in the Big Ten) and leading the league in assists per outing at 6.1.  Dutcher believes the Canadian native, who had 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his last visit to Madison, could some day be remembered among Minnesota’s best guards in program history.

“He’s not one dimensional,” Dutcher said.  “It’s not just the three; he can really penetrate and finish at the rim.  So he’s definitely an all-conference player and maybe even more than that.”

Badgers point guard Brad Davison, the Maple Grove native, is likely to guard Carr and Dutcher acknowledges he is a capable defender.  But the retired coach said Carr is difficult to handle and is complemented by senior forward Brandon Johnson’s outside shooting and the inside and outside threat of Robbins. “Minnesota gives you a lot of problems defensively,” Dutcher said.

The Gophers’ offense, averaging 84.3 points per game, would be even more effective if junior guard Gabe Kalscheur hadn’t been in a long shooting slump from three-point distance (.188 conversion percentage). Dutcher, though, offered at least a partial explanation. “He’s probably been their best defensive player.  When you’re really concentrating, playing tough defense, sometimes it affects your offense. …”

Minnesota will need defensive help against the Badgers, including on the perimeter. Wisconsin’s key to winning the game is using its trademark assets of solid defense, minimal turnovers and hitting three-point shots. “…They gotta make some threes to beat Minnesota,” Dutcher said.

Maybe, though, it will be Carr and the Gophers who again find good fortune and win the game with a three-pointer.  “He’s really hit some big shots, right when they needed them,” Dutcher said.

 

Start Watching Gophers QB Roster

December 28, 2020 - (0) comments

 

An offseason storyline to follow with the University of Minnesota football program is whether the quarterback roster remains unchanged between now and kickoff next summer against Ohio State in the Gophers’ first game of the 2021 season.

Minnesota will have five scholarship quarterbacks on next season’s roster unless one or more transfer, or (unlikely) give up football. That’s a high total for a major college football program, and the most in memory for the Gophers.

Tanner Morgan

The quarterback scholarship parade is led by Tanner Morgan who started and played every minute at the position this fall. He will be a redshirt junior in 2021 with more than two seasons of starting experience. The other scholarship quarterbacks for next year are: Zack Annexstad, redshirt sophomore; Jacob Clark, redshirt freshman; Cole Kramer, redshirt freshman, and Athan Kaliakmanis, freshman. The QB depth even includes non-scholarship players at the position.

No one is questioning the loyalty of the five scholarship quarterbacks to the Gophers but they all want to compete in games as collegians. With plenty of eligibility remaining, Annexstad, Clark and Kramer might be contemplating their futures now. Morgan is the established starter and Kaliakmanis hasn’t even suited up for his first practice, so those two are all but certain to be Gophers in 2021.

As a walk-on, Annexstad was the Minnesota starter at the beginning of the 2018 season and stayed at No. 1 for seven games. Injuries set him back in late 2018 and all of 2019. A scholarship player for awhile now, he hasn’t seen game action for two seasons. He wanted so much to be a Gopher, the former Mankato West QB reportedly turned down other major college offers, but could a place like North Dakota State interest him now? The powerhouse Bison will have opportunities at QB next year and beyond.

Clark came to Minnesota as a four-star recruit from Texas and Rivals ranked him the No. 13 pro style passer in the class of 2019. The Dallas Morning News, in a June 2018 story, reported Clark had 16 college offers including California, Iowa, TCU and Purdue. It is surprising that Clark, Annexstad and Kramer didn’t receive even a minute of playing time this fall despite opportunities for a reserve quarterback in one-sided games. If Clark enters the NCAA football transfer portal, he will draw immediate interest from major programs.

If anyone is taking bets on Annexstad, Clark or Kramer moving on, the latter seems least likely to change schools. The former Eden Prairie quarterback has the moxie of a winner and the quality hasn’t gone unnoticed at the U. His affection for the school is genuine, having grown up influenced by relatives who are prominent former Gophers including Carter Coughlin and Tom Moe. Kramer played briefly in three games as a true freshman in 2019.

None of the quarterbacks, by the way, need to move on to other schools because of academic challenges at Minnesota. Annexstad, Clark and Kramer were all honored as Academic All-Big Ten players in 2020. Morgan earned the designation in 2018 and 2019.

With the Gophers coming off a challenging and disappointing 3-4 season in 2020, head coach P.J. Fleck could voice a public challenge to all players that every position is open for competition during spring football practices. That could be done at quarterback without sending the message the coaching staff doesn’t want Morgan to be the starter. An effective message is that offseason competition is an asset for all concerned, pushing individuals and the team to improve. That kind of communication influences players including reserve quarterbacks.

Morgan’s passing regressed in 2020 after making second team All-Big Ten in 2019. He had too many throws off target including a killer interception in the end zone against Wisconsin that cost Minnesota the game and the return of Paul Bunyan’s Axe. To be fair, though, he didn’t quite have the same quality of receivers this fall as he did in 2019, and the Gophers played with a reshuffled offensive line that could be ineffective in pass protection.  He was also working with a new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in Mike Sanford Jr.

The coaches know they have a special asset in Morgan who is an exceptional and experienced game manager who can consistently throw with accuracy (school record 18 consecutive games with a touchdown pass between 2018 and 2020). He is a eye-catching 17-7 as Minnesota’s starting quarterback. He turns 22 years old in April and as a “geezer” could finish his career at the U as a five-year starter!

Worth Noting

Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim was named Third Team All-America by the Associated Press today. He led the Big Ten in rushing attempts (201), rushing yards (1,076), rushing yards per game (153.7), rushing touchdowns (15), scoring (90), points per game (12.9) and all-purpose yards per game (168.4). He was third in the nation in rushing yards per game, fourth in points per game, fifth in rushing touchdowns, sixth in all-purpose yards per game and eighth in rushing yards.

George Paton, the Vikings assistant GM, is a regular on the annual SI.com list of potential NFL general managers. He made the latest rankings published last Friday and his name is rumored for a position with the Chicago Bears front office, while finishing up his 14th year with the Vikings.

Words of praise last week from Andrew Simon writing on Mlb.com about the Twins’ Byron Buxton: “Buxton finished with a stellar 124 OPS+ over 135 plate appearances but how he got there was…unorthodox. This was pretty much the definition of ‘all or nothing.’ Buxton struck out 36 times against his two walks, and 13 of his 33 hits were homers.

“Never before had a player posted an OBP below .280 and a slugging percentage above .550 in a season with at least 100 PA. Buxton also set a record by having 35% of his total times reaching base safely come via the home run ball.”

The Gophers’ men’s basketball team is ranked No. 21 in today’s Associated Press poll. It’s the first time the Gophers have been nationally ranked since Dec. 10, 2017. Nine Big Ten teams are ranked in the AP’s top 25 including No. 17 Michigan State who the Gophers play tonight at home.

Dick Jonckowski

Former Gophers basketball public address announcer Dick Jonckowski has cancer, with more specifics to be known this week after meeting with his oncologist. Several years ago he beat stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

St. Thomas men’s basketball coach John Tauer posted these appreciative words on Facebook last week about wife Chancey Anderson Tauer and her battle with breast cancer: “…conclusion of 8 grueling months of chemo, surgery, and radiation, all while supporting and inspiring her family, and pouring her heart into her passion, Prodeo Academy.”

Award winning singer John Legend, uncle of Gophers wide receiver Mike Brown-Stephens, turns 42 today.

 

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