What a rough couple of weeks for Gopher fans. Basketball goes in the tank, and just when we thought the hockey team was finally turning a corner, they get swept at home in the playoffs for the first time ever. Well perhaps Gopher football can put people in a better mood. Wait, did I just type that? Gopher football putting fans in a more positive mood than Gopher hoops or hockey? What the? Crazy as it sounds, that's where we're at, and there's plenty of things to be excited for.
As GN posted yesterday, spring ball starts in a little over a week, and I'm as excited for spring football as I can remember. A new coaching staff, a new QB, and plenty of talent and intrigue. There's A LOT of questions heading into the spring, and we've focused on a few thus far: the new QB, rebuilding the offensive line, the defensive backs have to be much better, the D line needs to start generating a pass rush and perform better at stopping the run. But perhaps the most glaring area for the 2011 Gophers, and it's one I haven't seen talked about much yet, is at wide receiver. With Glen Mason's run-heavy approach and Tim Brewster's...um...ok Timmy never really had a consistent approach to offense that worked, but you certainly wouldn't call it pass happy by any means. Anyway, you wouldn't THINK of Minnesota having consistently good groups of wide receivers over the past decade, but for the most part it's happened: Ron Johnson had two dominant seasons to kick off the decade, and then yes, there were two seasons where Jared Ellerson was the leading receiver. But then it was Logan Payne, Ernie Wheelwright, and then some guy named Eric Decker. When Decker graduated last year, there were concerns about who would catch the ball in his place, and up stepped junior Da'Jon McKnight, who had a monster year, leading the team in catches and yards and the entire conference with 10 receiving TD's. MarQueis Gray made a fine #2 receiver, Bryant Allen was solid in the slot, and for most of the season Eric Lair was one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the Big Ten.
All of those guys were eligible to return for 2011, setting the Gophers up to have potentially one of the best receiving corps in the conference. But as we know, it didn't turn out that way...
As good as MarQueis was at wideout (and for his detractors, please remember he had never played the position in his life and was learning on the fly in the Big Ten- and he still tallied 42 catches for 587 yards and 5 TD's), he'll be the most effective and most dangerous at QB. We hope. I have full confidence he'll be able to run a new offense that suits his skill set immensely better than the old one, and we're already hearing great things about his leadership in off-season conditioning. So while MarQueis' move is necessary, it creates a void for a #2 wideout. While Bryant Allen is more of a slot receiver, he still adds experience and would be a fine compliment to McKnight...except, of course, he transferred. For the life of me I still don't know why Allen gave up a shot at starting this season at a Big Ten school so he could transfer and do...what? He might be the featured guy at a small school somewhere, but is that really better than being the 2nd or 3rd receiver at Minnesota? My only thought is Allen didn't think he'd be able to play on the outside, and because the new offense is supposed to feature the TE and H-back more, perhaps he thought (or was told? I don't know) there'd be a lot less three receiver sets than last year. It's the only thing that makes any sense, but then again who knows? Not me, obviously.
Anyway, while I wish him well (I guess?) it leaves a serious void for the Gophers at wide receiver. Yes, the new offense we'll see from Jerry Kill and OC Matt Limegrover will be more run oriented than anything we've seen since the Mason days, but it's still going to require some pass catchers to, well, catch passes. Last season NIU had two guys with at least 40 catches, and a third with 35. Now that was in year three with senior QB Chandler Harnsih who had learned that offense for three seasons, and completed 65% of his passes, so that's really the optimal situation. With EVERYBODY learning the offense and a new QB at the helm in 2011, I wouldn't expect to see as much passing, but there's still going to be a big need for a second option to step up at wideout. I expect McKnight to be one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, but if opponents can look at the Gophers and know that if they double or triple McKnight nobody else will make them pay then that's an obvious problem.
Well, who's it going to be? Who is going to step into Gray's shoes as the #2 wideout and make some big catches and grab some key first downs? For now, I'm leaving out Eric Lair as a #2 option because historically Kill's offense has not featured a pass-catching TE much at all. Perhaps he tweaks it for Lair, but until we see otherwise I'm running on the assumption we'll see less of Lair in 2011 instead of more.
So with Allen transferred and Gray at QB- oh and the immortal Hayo! Carpenter graduated. How could I forget Hayo? How will we ever forget the production we received from the man Tim Brewster basically proclaimed as the greatest JUCO receiver in the history of the universe?- returning Minnesota wide receivers NOT named Da'Jon combined for a grand total of two catches last season. Two. And no offense to either one of those fine gentlemen, but if either one of them- juniors A.J. Barker or Victor Keise- win the #2 job we're in big trouble. But thankfully, and again no offense to either, I highly doubt they will be.
That's because there's two guys who will essentially be competing for that #2 role opposite Da'Jon. The leader heading into spring ball has to be Brandon Green, who was recently granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA (he missed almost all of last year with a knee injury), meaning he'll have two more years of eligibility instead of one. If you'll take a stroll with me down memory lane, you'll remember Green was part of that big 2008 recruiting class, and was considered a four star recruit by both Scout and Rivals. He didn't disappoint as a true freshman, starting five of the final six games while catching 21 passes. But as a sophomore he only started five games and his production tailed off as the season went along, failing to record a catch in the final two games against Iowa and Iowa State (just typing that reminds me how much I hate that state). In 2010 it was hoped he'd step up as one of the top receivers to replace Eric Decker, but because of the knee injury he never got the chance. So now he gets another chance to make good on his lofty billing when he came to campus, and so far, the early returns are at least promising.
In Doogie's report from watching conditioning, he noted Brandon Green was running hard and looking good. Yes, that should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt considering it's just conditioning drills, but it at least shows Green appears to be close to 100% back from the knee injury, so at least his health shouldn't be a concern. At 6'0 and 190 he's got wheels and pretty good hands. I remember him making a great TD catch in the 2009 win over Michigan State. Adam Weber threw the best pass of his life 37 yards down the sideline and hit Green perfectly in the back of the end zone. That's one of the few bright spots I can remember about Green. Come to think of it, it's one of the few for Weber too.
So Green has some experience, but he's going to get some serious competition from incoming towering JUCO transfer Ge'Shun Harris. At 6'3 and 210 pounds, he's a physical presence that you have to think Kill would love to have out there, as he'd not only be an imposing target opposite Da'Jon, but should also help blocking downfield. Like with the workout reports about Green, any hype surrounding Harris should be tempered because of the recent gawd-awful track record of former JUCO receiver recruits Hayo! Carpenter and David Pittman. Both were hailed as big-time recruits, and both failed as badly and miserably as possible. So while I'm very excited about the possibilities Ge'Shun presents...I'm going to keep that excitement for myself until we see him on the field a little bit. Still, considering he's already on campus and will get to compete in the spring, he'll get every opportunity to beat out Green for a starting spot.
A darkhorse in this race is another guy from that vaunted 2008 recruiting class, Xzavian Brandon. He wasn't heavily recruited out of Georgia, but at 6'3 he's big and athletic, and like Green challenged for playing time as a true freshman in 2008. But his season lasted just four games because of a back injury, and then missed all of 2009 and 2010 with a knee injury. I'm not sure if it was the same knee and same injury both years, but that's almost three entire years he hasn't played football. Still, if he's close to healthy, he's the big, athletic type Kill likes at receiver and could surprise, but that's a pretty big "if". We could also see a freshman push for playing time, like Quentin Gardner or Devin Crawford-Tufts, but the fact they won't arrive until summer puts them too far behind the other receivers for this season. And sure, either Keise or Barker could surprise, but it likely comes down to Green vs. Harris.
At the moment, my completely uneducated guess says Harris ends up winning the job. Wait, didn't I just say I wasn't going to believe the hype on yet another heralded JUCO receiver until I see some results? I did, didn't I? Well, at a time when we need some positivity for Gopher fans, there's never been a better time for our heralded recruits- both JUCO and former high school stars- to start panning out, so let's start believing it's going to happen, and then we can watch it happen next week when spring ball begins. I hope.