Jeffrick took care of our Running Back preview earlier this week and I'm going to take on another position group of skill players. There should be plenty of confidence in our stable of running backs for 2014 but the group with possibly the most potential and the one that I think we'll be fairly confident in down the road is our young group of wide receivers.
It is no secret that the Gopher air attack was the worst in the Big Ten. Granted, this team's identity is to run the ball and then when that becomes more of a challenge, we run the ball again. Unfortunately the passing attack never developed to give the offense the boost it needed. Quarterback play was inconsistent, at best and the receiving corp was a combination of inexperience and lacking playmakers who could impact games.
Unfortunately this Upgrade/Downgrade preview is going to sound eerily similar to last years. A lack of returning playmakers who were consistent performers from the prior season combined with a handful of young receivers who had a chance to start making an impact on the roster. The names are different but the overall story remains the same.
The last time a Gopher team had anyone with more than 30 receptions was 2011 when Da'Jon McKnight grabbed 51 balls. Last year our top receivers were Derrick Engle and Maxx Williams with 25 each, next in line was our starting RB with 17. Will this be the year when a wideout breaks out? Will one or two of them be able to take advantage of a packed box and minimal coverage? And most importantly will the passing game take a step or two to help the offense become more balanced and ultimately more potent?
The likely starters are going to be sophomore Drew Wolitarsky and senior Isaac Fruechte on the outside.
Pressed into action as a true freshman last year, Wolitarsky steadily increased his production and snaps throughout the season. Saw action in all 13 games, started four of them and was the team's most productive receiver (excluding Maxx Williams) in the bowl game. Finished the season with 15 catches 259 yards and one touchdown. If I had to pick one receiver who is most likely to catch 30 or 40 balls this year, Wolitarsky would be the guy. As a sophomore, with a year of the offense under his belt I think he is probably the most ready to be a consistent and reliable target for Mitch Leidner. Not exactly explosive but Wolitarsky is going to be the guy who gets himself open by running good routes, finding the holes in the defense and then making the catch. Game-changer? Not exactly but certainly will be a primary target and will catch a lot of balls this year.
Fruechte started six games last year, recorded 13 catches and 154 yards. I expect he'll begin the season as a starter on the outside and expect his numbers to increase. The senior has good size, good hands and decent speed. I really can see him being a productive wide-out who potentially breaks out in 2014 by doubling his 2013 production, but I see more likely a slight increase in his stats while being a regular on the field.
The one guy who I'm most excited about seeing and the guy whom I believe has the most potential to be a game-changing receiver is Donovahn Jones. Like Wolitarsky, Jones saw his playing time increase throughout the season as a true freshman. He finished playing in all 13 games and starting twice. His biggest impact last year was mostly on the jet sweep, particularly in the Nebraska win where he had 4 carries for 42 yards. Jones has some serious athletic ability and has the potential to be a dangerous weapon in the passing game. He too will benefit from a year in the system but most importantly for Jones is that he made the transition to receiver last August after playing quarterback in high school. I do not expect consistent production here but certainly some home runs throughout the season are likely.
Then we have Logan Hutton who is expected to see action at receiver this year. The senior from Texas has four career receptions but is expected to contribute more this season. You may know Hutton as the guy who caught two balls while doing a backflip in his video that went viral. You will see him as part of the rotation this year.
In the slot you will likely see KJ Maye, the junior who had 7 catches last year. Along with Maye you should also see redshirt freshman Eric Carter. Both of these guys have potential to make an impact but their exact role and how the passing game evolves should dictate how much we see them on the field.
Those are the six receivers most likely to be catching balls this fall from Leidner. You are going to see a heavy dose of Maxx Williams and the other tight ends, but the six receivers above are going to be the names you see most often on the field.
But there are two others who need to be discussed. Isaiah Gentry and Melvin Holland Jr are also a part of this receiving corp. The two true freshmen are both very talented, athletic receivers who could make an impact this season. Ideally it would be nice to see them redshirt and then have four strong years to contribute but they may be forced into action either because they are too good to keep off the field or because of injury. I did attend the first Gopher practice this year and intently watched both of these kids during a few different drills. I am very excited about seeing both of these lengthy and athletic receivers lining up on opposite sides for the Gophers in the coming years.
I think the future is bright for the Gopher receiving corp but the question is really about are they going to be better this year. I think the answer is yes. Gone is really only Derrick Engel who had 25 receptions. I think his production will be easily absorbed by Wolitarsky, Jones and Fruechte. Being a little better seems like an easy step to take, the real question is how much better will this unit be in 2014?