We continue the spring game preview with a look at the rest of the offense. The scrimmage will be great, and have I mentioned it's going to be 70 degrees and they're going to sell beer? Because it's going to be 70 and sunny and they're going to sell beer. You might want to be at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday at 1. Just sayin'.
Quick, name the Gopher's returning leader in catches. How about yards? TD's? If you guessed it would be a pair of WSR's in Derek Engel or the Caledonia Clipper himself Isaac Fruechte, well hooray for you. With AJ Barker not coming back (yes, he's back attending classes at The U. No, he's not going to play football for the Gophers again), Fruechte is the returning leader in catches (19- yeah that's not a typo) and TD's (2...again, yeah) while Engel had 375 yards (I mean...) and 20.8 per catch (ok that's actually really good- and probably totally unsustainable). Besides the yards per catch numbers that's, um, not exactly eye-popping numbers, but hey on the bright side, I suppose it does leave some room for improvement. Like a LOT of room for said improvement. Were I a betting man and if you could bet on such a thing, I'd be putting my money on one of these two to lead in the major receiving categories again in 2013- with hopefully much bigger numbers. They don't have the highest upside or potential ceiling of the all the guys hoping to catch passes in Maroon and Gold, but they're at least consistent, somewhat stable, and at the moment they're in the mix to start. Fruechte with his large frame already has the size you'd want in an outside receiver in the B1G, and while Engel's not the biggest or fastest, he's versatile enough to play in the slot or the outside. Watch how many times both these guys get targeted on Saturday and where they line up.
Two guys with much higher ceilings and potential than Fruechte or Engel are junior Devin Crawford-Tufts and redshirt frosh Jamel Harbison. They're two very different types of receivers with very intruiging skills, but both also come with issues. Harbison's issue is that he's coming off major knee surgery, an injury suffered in the opening half of the opening game of last season in Vegas. As you've no doubt heard a couple two-three times by now, the coaches were raving about Harbison heading into last season, even calling him the team's best receiver despite the fact he was a true freshman. Considering the struggles of everybody else except Barker, here's hoping that same Harbison will be back for 2013, better than ever. However, unless you're Adrian Peterson (yay or nay on the Vikes new jerseys, by the way? I'd still rather they just go back to the 70's jerseys with the gray facemasks, but at least the brand new ones look a lot better than the previous versions. For more Vikings jersey and draft talk, ask JDMill. He LOVES this stuff), you generally don't come back better than ever from major knee surgery, and it takes most human beings (which is probably proof AD isn't human but part cyborg, part awesome) a full year or more to return to anything close to 100%. While Harbison is all kinds of intruiging with a running back build (5'11 200) and speed, and some solid hands to go with him, a conservative guess says it'll take him part of this season to work himself back into form and gain the confidence back he needs in that knee. Then again, maybe he's a freak like AD, in which case buckle up.
DCT's issues have been...well I wish I knew, to be honest. He's got everything you'd want in a wideout with good size (6'2 and almost 200 pounds), speed (he finished third in the 60 meter dash at the B1G indoor championships back in February) and has shown some good hands in his two seasons thus far. He showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, including a two catch 100 yards performance against Iowa, but we're still waiting for the breakout year. Last season he finished with just 16 catches for 189 yards, never had more than 4 catches or 67 yards in a game, and his only touchdown came in the bowl game against Texas Tech. Maybe this is the year it comes together, or maybe we continue wondering.
KJ Maye has gotten some good reviews this spring as a slot receiver, and he is dangerous with the ball in his hands, so we'll see how well he transitions to being a full=time slot receiver from a scat back role he played last year. We should also probably point out that two of the team's top receivers from last season in Barker and Engel were barely visible in spring ball in 2012. So as always, remember the GGS. And we're not going to even get into Andre McDonald's absence because as much as a kid that talented would help, I have zero faith he's coming back.
TIGHT ENDS/H-BACKS/FULL BACKS
Last year departed senior John Rabe led all tight ends in catches (14), yards (143) and TD's (4), and while you never like to see productive players go, the Gophers seem especially deep at this position. Junior Drew Goodger kept pace with Rabe's numbers and is the likely starter, and is a mauler at 265 pounds. True soph Lincoln Plsek played very well once he had the redshirt removed about halfway through last season and will be on the field a lot, and junior Alex Bisch also saw some action in 2012 and should see more in 2013. Senior Kendall Gregory-McGhee, a converted defensive lineman who weighs in at over 270 pounds, missed all of last season due to injury, and is intriguing. The guy who looks like an offensive tackle weaing a running back's number 28 is former QB Moses Alipate, who has, um, "slimmed down" to a reported 281 pounds. I'd love to see the former highly touted high school prospect finally get on the field as a senior. Maybe even a TE option pass? Ok, probably a bad idea. There's a stable of other guys who redshirted or didn't play last season but will be fighting for playing time, including former Wayzata star Maxx Williams, who was one of the top recruits in the state in 2012.
There's only two fullbacks listed on the roster, and you can expect to see one of them, senior Mike Henry, a lot. The converted linebacker has played every game as a full-back/H-back the past two seasons, and while they don't give him the ball much, he's been invaluable as a blocker. I have no idea what to expect from redshirt frosh Tyler Hartmann from Andover, but anybody wearing #69 has to at least be interesting, right? Right?
This is not a novel or original take by any means, but the production of the offense in 2013 weighs more on the health of the offensive line than anywhere else. We got a glimpse of what a healthy starting five could do in last year's bowl game against Texas Tech where the offense rolled to 222 yards rushing and 2 scores at more than four yards per carry. Yes, TTU has an undersized defense, but the offense looked almost infinitely better than they had in the past couple of months leading up to the bowl game. HOles were open for the backs to run through, blockers were getting to the second level, and QB's Philip Nelson and MarQueis Gray even had time to throw.
That remains the barometer, and in some ways the dream for Minnesota's offense in 2013. Thanks to an almost comical rash of injuries each of the past two seasons, the group goes two, and sometimes three deep at every position along the offensive line. And yet, for this offense to be its' most productive and efficient, it needs all five starters to play more than a game or two together. While hope remains for a healthy five starters to begin the season, it's still yet to happen this spring as at least four contributors have missed all or part of the spring: Seniors Ed Olson, a three year starter at tackle, and Zach Mottla, who played in seven games last year and started three, have both missed the spring recovering from injury. Uber recruit Jonah Persig, who redshirted last season as a freshman, has missed most of spring practice with what coaches will only call "a knee cap" issue. Yeah that doesn't sound good, and his status is in question for Saturday. Junior and Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek is expected to be the week one starter at center yet has missed most of the spring with the flu. There's been more, and while the hopes are everybody is ready to go in August, it just seems like there's one injury after another.
But at least the Gophers do have depth, talent and experience across the board, so if/when someone goes down, chances are there's a guy with starting or at least playing experience to take his place. Sophomore Josh Campion started all 13 games at right tackle last year, and Zac Epping was the team's best lineman as he played also started every game while splitting time between guard and center. IF Bobek can lock down center it'll create a lot of competition for the other starting guard spot opposite Epping, led by two sophomores and a junior. Caleb Bak started the final 11 games at right guard and former walk-on Jon Christenson played in 10 games last year, starting 6 at guard or center. Junior Tommy Olson was one of the highest rated recruits of any Gopher on the team, yet he missed half of last season with injury, starting six games at guard. Another highly touted recruit who could push for time is redshirt freshman Isaac Hayes. Yeah I'm talkin' bout Shaft!
Since Ed Olson won't play Saturday, there'll be a lot of competition for his starting left tackle spot. Junior Marek Lenkiewicz likely gets first shot as he appeared in every game last season, and started four at LT. Sophs Foster Bush and Joe Bjorkland appeared in seven and five games each last season, and fellow sophomores and twins Luke and Kyle McAvoy could factor in at tackle or guard. I almost forgot yet another sophomore, Ernie Heifort, who should never be forgotten when his profile pic not only has a mullet, but shaved racing strips on the sides. Business in front, party in the back, people. Would you believe he's from Bemidji? I thought you might.