Who will Q be throwing to? Unfortunately we lose our second most productive receiver from 2010, himself. It is possible he may hook up with himself on a play but I don't believe that is how they'll be drawing it up. So who will be receiving passes from Mr. Gray? And will it be an upgrade over last year?
Overall we are returning just shy of 60% of our receptions and exactly 60% of our yards. We had four players catch more than 16 balls last year and we return three of them (really we return all four of them but one is moving to QB). Da'Jon McKnight was the team's leading receiver. Eric Lair was the team's third leading receiver. And Duane Bennett finished fourth. Those three accounted for well over half of the team's output through the air last year. The Gopher receiving corp really loses one significant and a couple minor losses at receiver. Gray is the major loss. That guy was really a great receiver and I will still argue that he has the talent and ability to play receiver on Sunday's in a couple years. He accounted for 42 catches, 587 yards and 5 touchdowns. Replacing a legit #2 (arguably #1) option is not an easy task. After Gray we are forced to replace fullback, Jon Hoese and Bryant Allen. Hoese is a fullback and from the perspective of a passing attack he will not be missed. Bryant Allen caught 16 balls for 202 yards and 1 TD. I personally liked Allen but that level of production can also be replaced.
Headlining the 2011 receivers will obviously be Da'Jon McKnight again. McKnight is a stud and very easily could end up being an all-Big Ten first teamer. He has great size, good hands and has the athletic ability to go and get balls above defensive backs. We all know he was a basketball player, turned receiver for just one year of high school football. The aggressive pursuit of his Dallas Skyline teammates netted this true diamond in the rough. Considering I expect we will be passing less this year, I'm not sure that McKnight will produce much more than the 48 receptions and 750 yards from 2010. I will be very shocked if he matches his 10 TDs. But that shouldn't diminish his impact and ability to make some very big plays for the Gophers this year. McKnight is arguably the best player on this offense.
The real question is who steps up to compliment him on the other side. The likely #2 is a big question mark and it could come from a couple returning vets, a few freshmen or a couple of JUCO transfers. The most likely candidates are Brandon Green (returning vet), Ge'Shun Harris (JUCO) or Malcolm Moulton (JUCO).
Green is a redshirt junior who is coming off an injury filled season. He did record 21 catches in each of his first two seasons and has started 10 games. But an early injury last year left him on the sidelines for the final 10 games. He was granted a medical hardship year and still has two to compete. He will certainly get playing time and may be the opening game starter opposite Da'Jon McKnight.
Up next is Ge'Shun Harris, a very big and physical JUCO transfer from Arizona. Harris comes to the program with a reputation for being a good blocker in addition to soft hands. His 6-3, 215 lb frame should serve him well blocking at this level and if he does that well, it may be what gives him the starting nod at USC. Malcolm Moulton is also a JUCO transfer but he comes to the Gophers with sophomore eligibility. In practices Moulton has been impressive this fall and will likely see playing time early.
Those guys are on the outside opposite McKnight, but we shouldn't forget about the slot receiver. There is little doubt that the starting slot receiver on Saturday will be true freshman, Marcus Jones. Jones arrived on campus in January so he has has the benefit of spring practice and an extra semester of strength training. He is maybe 5-8 but is quick and could be dangerous from the inside. He will be fun to watch and very well could end up being the third leading receiver on the squad.
Others vying for playing time will be sophomores Victor Keise and A.J. Barker and true freshman Devin Crawford-Tufts. DCT will hopefully redshirt but expect Keise and Barker to see the field in all 12 games.
At Tight End the Gophers will be led by Eric Lair, who could put up some great numbers this year. As a junior, Lair recorded 39 catches and 2 touchdowns. I fully expect his touchdown totals to be greater than 5 this year and 40-45 catches seems very reasonable. 6-3, 232 lbs and has good speed/quickness. Lair is underrated in the Big Ten and while he isn't exactly a receiver he is clearly our #2 receiving threat.
Backing him up will be the likes of senior, Collin McGarry; Jon Rabe, a junior JUCO transfer, and sophomore,Sahr Ngekia from Holy Angles. Those guys are not going to wow you with their receiving skills but they should be adequate in the run game.
Overall I don't think we will have a #2 receiver of the caliber of MarQueise Gray. But I do believe that we have a few guys all capable of catching 20+ balls. I expect McKnight to catch 45+ and Lair should be around 40 again. After that it will be a combo platter of Jones, Green, Harris and Moulton combining for most of the rest. The question is less about how many balls are they capable of catching, the question is can these guys run precise routes? Can they create separation and get themselves open? And can they make an impact on games whether they are catching balls or not?
When faced with the specific question of, is this group an upgrade or a downgrade it is difficult to really answer that. The safe answer is that this group will be neutral and the passing game will be much more reliant on great pass protection and then it all rests on the arm of MarQueise Gray.