I recently spent a good 45 minutes looking at the updated numerical roster of the Minnesota Gopher football team. I actually got excited about a photo of Paul Bunyan’s Axe being held by a pixelated video game version of the Gophers. I briefly listened to someone talk about “2013 recruiting cycles” before snapping out of it.
Yes, we’re in the dead period between spring and fall practice.
To bridge the gap to when college football starts again, I’ve broken down the the Gophers’ 15 most important players in 2012. This completely subjective list was created with the following criteria in mind: If player “X” either fulfills his potential or suffers an injury and cannot contribute, how much would that impact the team? Certain players might be more skilled than others listed, the “15 for 2012” mixes talent, position importance and team depth into one ranking. Lastly, I stamped my non-objective bias into it, producing, voila! The Gophers’ 15 Most Important Players in 2012. Or “15 for 2012.”
Each day I’ll update another player, on the countdown from No. 15 to No. 1. We start with freshman (redshirt) center John Christenson.
15. Jon Christenson | OL | Freshman (RS) | 6'4” 290 lbs. Redshirted - Did not record any statistics. Photo credit: Chris Polydoroff, Pioneer Press
This may be high for a player who might not even end up earning a starting job. However, this is based on what Jon Christenson represents: The creation and maintenance of a strong walk-on program at the University of Minnesota.
A walk-on from Minnetonka, Christenson figures to battle Zach Mottla and potentially Zac Epping for the team’s starting center spot this year. Working against Christenson is his relative youth, he’s only a redshirt freshman, whereas Mottla –- also a former walk-on — has two more years of experience and served as the backup center last year. Epping could push both at center, but he likely figures more into the team’s plans at right guard.
Christenson’s name likely causes a drawn out, “Whoooo?” from most casual fans, and that’s expected. A workout warrior who has apparently bulked up on Strength and Condition Coach Eric Klein’s offseason program, Christenson came to campus weighing about 265 pounds and has since bulked up another 30 pounds or so. (This came from Fringe Bowl Team’s own fearless leader MV on a podcast earlier this year.)
Christenson has drawn raves from the coaching staff, too. Coach Jerry Kill has continually raved about him on WCCO-AM’s “Sports Huddle with Sid and Dave.” On Nov. 20, 2011, Kill said he was “excited” about Christenson. On Feb. 19, Kill said Christenson he was “pushing people (around) and is athletic” and on March 25 Kill mentioned he will help this year.
Whether Christenson becomes the starter this fall or figures into more of a backup role, his emergence is important because if Minnesota ever re-enters the national consciousness as something other than a once storied program that now loses in spectacular fashion, they are going to need the help of a strong walk-on program. Call it stealing from the old Nebraska model (which Wisconsin also replicated).
In 2011, the Badgers started four solid contributors who were formerly walk-ons: fullback Bradie Ewing, left tackle Ricky Wagner, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and defensive tackleEthan Hemer.
There are several positions, like offensive line, tight end, fullback/h-back, kicker, punter and linebacker where walk-ons can not only contribute but play extensively large roles. I write later about Mike Rallis in the 15 for 2012, a former walk-on who will start at linebacker again this year. Although opportunities to play locally under a scholarship have grown in recent years with four schools in the Dakotas moving up to the Football Championship Subdivision ranks, Minnesota will need to recruit players with potential who slip through the cracks of traditional recruiting. As much as they will need to land hometown recruits and develop them into big-time talents (think Eric Decker or Matt Spaeth), the coaching staff will need to find solid contributors who can grow along with the program, like former walk-ons Marcus and Mike Sherels.
A theme that runs through these player capsules is that Minnesota will need to overachieve to become successful again. The team will need overachievers who are ready to build themselves into high impact players.
Who is a better example of an overachiever than a walk-on who becomes a full-time contributor? Here’s guessing that Jon Christenson becomes a bit more of a household name to Gopher fans this fall.