If there was any doubt that wide receiver is the offensive unit with the most questions before, the news that Devin Crawford-Tufts was making the decision to focus on track ended the debate. This position group did not product much for Golden Gopher Football in 2012. There was exactly one player who had more than 19 receptions last year; he's gone. Only 3 other receivers had 15+ receptions; one of them is gone too. The next two most productive pass catchers were tight ends. Even if everyone was returning, the receiving corp for the Gophers was not all that productive in 2012.
Being a productive receiver at this level requires not only the usual measurables like height and/or speed to go along with the ability to catch the ball. But the good ones are able to properly read coverages, set up defenders to make their moves, find holes in the defense, create separation and make themselves properly available for their quarterback. The Gopher stable of receivers have some of the measurables and there are a few younger receivers who have a chance to be pretty productive in the Big Ten. But are we going to see that this year? Is Philip Nelson going to have a group that will allow him to maximize his talents? Many believe that Adam Weber was boosted by having a guy like Eric Decker, will anybody step up to make Nelson look better?
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Gone is A.J. Barker for bizarre reasons we don't need to re-HASH. The most recent to leave is the speedy DCT who wants to run without the hindrance of shoulder pads. Also gone, this time from eligibility expiration, is Brandon Green. So who does that leave us with?
Likely starters on the outside are likely to be Isaac Fruechte and Derrick Engel to start the season; keeping up the meme of white speed receivers for the Golden Gophers.
Fruechte, you may recall, is a JUCO transfer who came into the program last year with three years of eligibility remaining. His sophomore season saw him grab 19 receptions for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns. The 19 catches was good enough to rank 2nd on the team. At 6-3 and over 200 pounds, Fruechte has good size to go along with good speed. When I'm drinking the kool-aid I can be convinced that Fruechte is a potential break-out player who may put up some very nice Big Ten numbers. As it stands, it appears as though he is the most likely to get opportunities early in the season.
Opposite Fruechte is going to be Derrick Engel, at least to start the year. Engel played for two seasons at Winona State before transferring up a level as a walk-on. He had always wanted to be a Gopher and after earning All-Conference honors as a sophomore he decided to see if he could make the unique jump from a good D2 program to the Big Ten. Due to transfer rules he was forced to sit out 2011 and then finally in 2012 he was eligibility to play and he managed to record 18 receptions and a touchdown. Now as a redshirt-senior he is likely going to be a starting receiver for his favorite team.
Engel, like Fruechte, fits into the WSR model and is an underrated play-maker. But again, both of these receivers are umproven. These guys combined for 37 catches and 3 touchdowns. I hope that both approach those numbers on their own this year.
In the slot there appears to be a camp battle brewing. The job was initially and currently belongs to KJ Maye's but Jamel Harbison might be surging in August to claim the job that was his until he tore and ACL very early in the UNLV game last year.
KJ Maye is a 5-10 athlete who played in all 13 games last year, starting two and getting some opportunities out of the backfield, returning kicks as well as catching passes out of the slot. Quick and elusive, Maye is well suited for the slot. After his freshman season, the Alabama native needs to be more available to his QB and then make some plays when he has the opportunity.
Jamel Harbison earned a lot of ink last fall in camp as a true freshman but was injured very early in the UNLV game last year and was granted a medical redshirt. Harbison has solid upper-body strength and in some ways reminded me of Percy Harvin. He too is well suited for the slot and should get a lot of playing time whether he or Maye is starting. Personally I really like Harbison and am expecting that he'll be good not only this year but throughout his career. He missed all of 2012 with the ACL tear, was very limited in Spring practice but now is ready to go full-speed again.
"I feel way better than I did before the injury," Harbison said. "The knee is stronger. I feel healthier. Of course I know the playbook better now. Everything is getting better on the field now after the injury ... I'm more about reading defenses, running routes based off the defense."
Up next on the depth chart is the one guy who probably has the best chance to make the biggest impact. Andre McDonald is a Hopkins grad and was a four-star recruit out of high school who verbally committed to the Gophers early, switched to Vandy and then changed his mind again and signed with Coach Kill. He is a very talented receiver with great size and hands. Unfortunately there have already been a few bumps in the road for McDonald who was suspended from the team throughout the spring missing spring practice. But to his credit he has worked his way back onto the field and many believe that by the end of the season he'll not only be starting, but he'll be our #1 receiving threat.
If you are looking for the one guy who has the ability to be an All-Big Ten caliber receiver with the skill-set to play on Sundays; this is your guy. The question will be can he put it all together and become that guy and when?
Up next are a couple of true freshmen in Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky who both have been making impressions this fall and both are likely to be contributors this fall. Carter has been impressing with his athleticism and hands. He is getting recognition almost daily from those attending practices about the Florida native's playmaking ability.
Wolitarsky is going to be big target and probably more of a possession type receiver rather than a stretch the field kind of guy. The California record-setting receiver is 6-3 and over 200 lbs. He is a precise route runner and should make for a big target for Nelson.
I find it hard to believe that both of these guys will be playing this fall. Both appear to be talented and capable of making playings at this level. But considering they would be the #6 and #7 receivers, it just seems to make more sense to redshirt at least one of them unless they start moving up the depth chart. If only one of these true freshman plays this year I expect it will be Carter. The good news in all of this is that these two, plus Harbison and plus sophomores Maye and McDonald leave the Gopher offense with a few play-making receivers who may be around for a few years.
Of course there are other receivers on the roster trying to make the field this year. Victor Keise is a senior who has appeared in 14 games over his career. Logan Hutton is a junior from Texas who played in four games last year. And Devon Wright has moved to receiver from running back and he has a chance to get some time on the field. These are all scholarship receivers, but I do not anticipate any meaningful production from these three.
So the question comes back to, is this unit an upgrade over last year? Before the loss of DCT I think I would have said it is neutral, possibly an upgrade. Losing DCT and the production we got from Barker has to make this unit a downgrade with the opportunity to be a major upgrade.
I like some of the talent we have here, especially the younger guys, and I think this group could be much more productive than it was last year. McDonald is a legit Big Ten player, Fruechte can be a big-play threat and Harbison is another guy that could really beat Big Ten defenses. Do I think this group could be significantly better? Yes. Can I guarantee it just because I want it to be so? No. We lost a lot of production from a year ago and I need someone to show me before I can call this unit an upgrade with a straight face.