Ed Note: During our look ahead to the 2008 Gophers, we've laid out the best/worst case scenario for 2008, offered profiles of Ted Roof and Mike Dunbar and taken a closer look at the offensive line. Today: wide receivers. Tomorrow: secondary.
It was clear in 2007 that the Gophers didn't have the weapons at wide receiver to consistently execute MIke Dunbar's spread offense. Aside from Eric Decker and Ernie Wheelright, the wide receiving corps of a year past left much to be desired. Tim Brewster set out on the recruiting trail to change that, and while the 2008 receiving corps might be young and inexperienced, it should provide more weapons for second year starting quarterback Adam Weber.
So, who are your 2008 pass catchers?
Eric Decker: A sure-handed junior, Decker might be one of the most under-appreciated wide receivers in the Big Ten. Named Minnesota's Most Outstanding Offensive Player in 2007, Decker took in a team-high 67 receptions for 909 yards and nine touchdowns. He showed big-play capability averaging 75.8 yards per game, good for fourth in the Big Ten.
Decker was, without a doubt, Weber's go-to guy in 2007. Another year under his belt should only add to his capabilities. But with that reputation, look for defenses to force the Gophers to demonstrate that they have options not named Decker. Secondaries will surely rotate in his direction. He could double-teams and will draw the opposition's best corner. In 2008, it will be more important than ever that those surrounding Decker show opposing defensive coordinators that they too can carry the Minnesota offense.
Outlook: Go-to receiver.
Ralph Spry: The only other Minnesota wideout with any tangible Big Ten experience, Spry showed spurts of quality play in 2007. He finished behind Decker and Wheelright in receptions (23) and yards (226). He nabbed three touchdowns and was on the receiving end of the longest touchdown pass of the season (71 yards).
Relatively small at 5'11, 175, Spry would seem to be the prototypical deep threat. A former track star in Alabama, Spry was one of Brewster's 2007 recruits. While not heavily recruited, Spry fits into the Brewster mantra of bringing in athletic players. Spry showed flashes on 2007, but will have to take a step forward in 2008. Spry has the advantage over the newcomers of being well-versed in the offense. If that translates into maturity and consistency, expect him on the field often.
Outlook: In the mix to grab a starting role.
Brandon Green: A 4-star wide receiver according to Scout and Rivals, Green hails from Illinois and is easily the most hyped of the incoming wide receivers. Make no
mistake, landing Green was a big get for Brewster, but it wasn't easy. Green always wanted to play for the Buckeyes, but OSU never offered a scholarship. Illinois was after his services, but the Gophers came out on top in part because the Illini intended to redshirt him during his would-be freshman campaign. Minnesota provided the best and immediate opportunity for Green.
At 6' 180, Green is described by ESPN Insider as "one of the better athletes in this class at wide receiver," who is "an explosive threat with the ball in his hands after the catch, which is why he is so dangerous on screens and underneath routes." Green has also been described as having solid hands, a good leaping ability and a toughness to take the hits over the middle. Green impressed the coaching staff enough to be listed on the first team as camp opened in August. Expect a learning curve and some freshman mistakes, but also big plays
Outlook: Probable starter, perhaps in the slot.
Xzavian Brandon: At 6'3, 185, Brandon has the height advantage over most of his fellow Minnesota receivers and, according to this evaluation, Brandon excels at positioning himself in relation to defenders. He's the type of receiver that could look great on end-zone fade routes and as a possession receiver.
Recuiting experts don't peg Brandon as a game-breaking type of receiver. For comparision, Brandon was a 2-star receiver according to both Scout and Rivals. But he should provide Weber with a different sort of weapon. Brandon has consistently been mentioned by the Minnesota brass as someone in the mix to contribute as a freshman.
Outlook: Will likely see the field. Probably not a starter.
Broderick Smith: Heavily recruited by Nebraska, Oregon, Illinois and others, Smith is a Rivals 3-star recruit and is ranked by them as the 69th best incoming freshman wideout in the 2008 freshman class. Like Green, Smith was sold on Minnesota in part on the team's need for immediate help at the position. From that article, Smith indicates Minnesota's desire to play him in a ton of different formations:
"They talked to me about playing wide receiver but they also have plans to move me around and put me in a lot of different formations. They don't want me to line up strictly as a receiver and that will force the defenses to adjust at all times if they want to stop me and the rest of the offense."
"I am also excited about the chance to play special teams. I will be able to come in and compete for the kick returner job. I think my game will fit into their schemes perfectly."
Like Brandon, Smith adds much needed size to the receiving corps. At 6'3, 200, Smith is considered a big, but also athletic target. Look for the Gophers to use Smith in all sorts of ways. And if I had to pick a receiver out of this list to surprise, or surpass expectations, it'd be Smith.
Outlook: Should battle for a starting spot, and if not a starter be used often.
David Pittman: A so-called "athlete," Pittman comes to the Gophers from
Pasadena City Community College as a junior college transfer. Recruited by UCLA, Washington State and others, how exactly Pittman will be used is unclear, but you don't recruit a Rivals 4-star "athlete" from the JUCO ranks and let him waste on the sidelines.
Early speculation had Pittman perhaps competing for the starting quarterback job, a position he excelled at in the JUCO ranks. That is clearly not happening. Now being described by the mainstream media as a wide receiver, Pittman is battling a slight hamstring injury and isn't quite 100 percent. So, what should we expect from Pittman? Probably a jack-of-all-trades type. Here's Brewster early in camp.
"We are going to try to be multi-dimensional with him," Brewster said. "We are going to line him up in the backfield, direct snap the ball to him some, and let him throw the ball some. He and Adam [Weber] in the backfield together will create some issues for the defense."
One year ago at this time it was thought that now long-gone Harold Howell would play this type of role. That didn't work out so well but Pittman has the football pedigree to excel.
Outlook: A possible change of pace at quarterback, deep threat at wide receiver and a gadgety-type weapon.
Da'Jon McKnight: Described by the Minnesota PR folks as a "raw talent with great size who can flat out run," McKnight is one of four recruits the Gophers inked from Dallas Skyline. While McKnight was lightly recruited (Rivals indicates Louisiana Tech was the only other school to offer), reports indicate the former safety has the athletic wherewithal to mature into a quality receiver. The Pioneer Press reported in early August that Brewster indicated McKnight was "in the mix" for playing time, it would be a large upset if he were to outduel Green, Smith, Brandon or Spry.
Outlook: A project that in a perfect world would be redshirted.
Ben Kuznia: A holdover from the Glen Mason era, Kuznia battled through injuries in 2007 and received sparse playing time. A junior and former walk-on from Olivia, Minn., Kuznia has seen the playing field in five games over two seasons and hasn't recoded a catch. Look for Kuznia to be outclassed in terms of athleticism by the newcomers and see infrequent playing time on offense.
Outlook: Special teams player.
Overall: The talent level, and the options that provides, should be a vast improvement in 2008. Expect some freshman mistakes out of Green, Brandon, Smith and others, but along with that should be some big-play capability that Minnesota lacked last season. If two of the newcomers can emerge early, look for Decker to build on his very good 2007 campaign. By 2009, this receiving corps, with Decker as a senior, could be one of the best in the Big Ten.