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Minnesota Football: The Gophers’ never-ending woes at wide receiver

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Minnesota hasn’t had a top tier wide receiver since Eric Decker graduated and went to the NFL. Why is that?

Oregon State v Minnesota Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since Eric Decker hauled in 84 receptions, 1,074 receiving yards, and 7 touchdowns in 2008. The Gophers also haven’t had a wide receiver drafted to the NFL since Decker was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

Why is that?

For one thing, the Gophers’ passing game has failed to launch in six years under the coaching staff that Jerry Kill brought to Minnesota. Senior Mitch Leidner, for better or for worse, has been the one constant at the quarterback position, where Max Shortell, Philip Nelson, Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, Chris Streveler, and Jacques Perra have all transferred over the years. And this coaching staff hasn’t produced a single NFL offensive lineman, which is a troubling trend for a program that once churned our pro linemen under Glen Mason. Granted, the men responsible for mishandling those two positions were shown the door after last season, so it could be said that head coach Tracy Claeys has taken steps to address the glaring issues at those two positions.

But what about the wide receivers? Yes, the offensive line needs to protect the quarterback long enough for the play to develop and to allow him to throw an accurate pass. Yes, the quarterback needs to have the ability to read the defense and throw an accurate and catchable pass to an open receiver. But the wide receivers also need to be able to get open, catch the ball, and make a play after the catch, if possible. This Gopher wide receiver corps, for the most part, has struggled to get open, catch the ball, and make a play after the catch.

To me, when you have one particular position group struggling over the course of several years, it comes down to two things: Recruiting and development. Is Minnesota recruiting Big Ten-caliber talent wide receiver? And is our wide receivers coach developing that talent and putting the players in a position to succeed?

Let’s consider both.

The Gophers’ current wide receivers coach is Brian Anderson, who was part of Kill's original coaching staff in 2011. But Anderson spent his first three years at Minnesota as runnings back coach, while Pat Poore was responsible for the wide receivers. In spring 2014, Anderson and Poore swapped roles on the coaching staff with no specific reasoning provided, other than it allowed Anderson return to coaching the position where he was most comfortable.

Prior to Minnesota, Anderson was tight ends coach at Northern Illinois under Kill. From 1996 to 2007, he coached wide receivers at Western Illinois, Highland Community College, Coffeyville Community College, and Southern Illinois, which is where he first became a member of Jerry Kill’s longtime coaching staff.

In 2011, Poore inherited senior wide receiver Da’Jon McKnight, who hauled in more receptions (51), more receiving yards (760), and more touchdowns (4) than the next four receivers combined. But McKnight’s numbers were virtually the same in 2010 — except for touchdowns, where his total dropped from 10 to 4 — so I’m not sure we can attribute his success to Poore. The following year, junior walk-on A.J. Barker was the Gophers’ leading receiver with 30 receptions, 577 receiving yards, and 7 touchdowns. Barker had one reception the previous two seasons, so I’d venture to guess Poore had something to do with that. But considering the circumstances under which Barker left the program, I doubt he’d be willing to give Poore much credit for his success. That same season also saw the emergence of Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte.

In 2013, the final season in which Poore coached wide receivers, the Gophers’ leading receiver was tight end Maxx Williams. You might be familiar with him. Behind Williams, Engel and Drew Wolitarsky were the next best receiving options for the Gophers. It was Engel’s best season as a Gopher — granted, his career at Minnesota spanned two seasons — with 25 receptions, 401 receiving yards, and 5 touchdowns.

When Anderson took over, not much changed his first year. Williams’ receptions went up from 25 to 36, his receiving yards went up from 417 to 569, and his touchdowns went up from 5 to 8. The next leading receiver was junior wideout KJ Maye, who accounted for 16 receptions, 298 receiving yards, and 1 touchdown.

Fruechte, who spent two years under Poore and his senior year under Anderson, never recorded more than 19 receptions or more than 292 receiving yards in a single season with the Gophers. After graduating, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings and has spent time on their practice squad, in addition to a brief stint with the Detroit Lions in the same role. He is the only Gopher wide receiver recruited under the Kill regime currently playing anywhere in the NFL.

In 2014, wide receivers only accounted for 43 percent of the team’s receptions. The previous season, wide receivers had accounted for 53 percent of the team’s receptions. Then in 2015, the second year with Anderson as wide receivers coach, that number rebounded up to 62 percent, in large part due to the emergence of KJ Maye as the offense’s go-to receiver. Maye alone accounted for 29 percent of the team’s receptions, 28 percent of the team’s receiving yards, and 33 percent of the team’s receiving touchdowns. Maye is Anderson’s biggest — and only — success story thus far, considering Maye’s meager production prior to his breakout senior season.

With Anderson in his second year as wide receivers coach, Maye produced the best numbers for a Gopher wide receiver under the Jerry Kill regime since Da’Jon McKnight during their first season leading the program.

That brings us to this season, where the problem is clear after a simple glance at the depth chart. In the latest two-deep, the three wide receiver positions consist of two seniors (one of them with two receptions on the year), one junior walk-on, one sophomore, one redshirt freshman walk-on, and one true freshman. Does that sound like the starting wide receiver corps of a Big Ten program that has had its basic offensive coaching staff in place for going on six years now?

The Gophers’ have nine scholarship players and six walk-ons at the wide receiver position. Seven of the nine scholarship players -- Wolitarsky and freshman Tyler Johnson being the exceptions -- have combined for 7 receptions and 91 receiving yards through seven games. Some of those players -- including ballyhooed redshirt sophomores Melvin Holland, Jr. and Isaiah Gentry -- haven’t recorded any statistics or even seen the field this season. Outside of Wolitarsky, the Gophers have relied on Johnson and walk-on Brian Smith for production. But Johnson hasn’t recorded more than 3 receptions in a single game and has 1 reception over the last three games combined. Smith has been a pleasant surprise, and had a career game against Penn State with 7 receptions and 101 receiving yards. Credit Smith for working his way into a starting role as a walk-on, but what does that say about this team if he is better than all but one of our scholarship wide receivers?

Is it a talent issue? Let’s take a look at how the Gophers have recruited the wide receiver position since 2011, when the Kill regime took over at Minnesota.

Wide Receiver Recruiting Class 247 Sports Composite Score Career Production
Devin Crawford-Tufts 2011 0.8149 24 receptions, 345 receiving yards. Quit the team prior to his junior season to focus on track.
Ge'Shun Harris 2011 0.7833 1 reception, 28 receiving yards. Dismissed from the team prior to his senior season.
Quentin Gardener 2011 0.8378 Denied admission to the university.
Andre McDonald 2012 0.8735 10 catches, 121 receiving yards. Suspended indefinitely as a sophomore and then transferred.
Jamel Harbison 2012 0.8715 No statistics recorded. Transferred after his redshirt freshman season.
Isaac Fruechte 2012 0.7791 50 receptions, 702 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns.
KJ Maye 2012 0.8029 107 receptions, 1,190 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns.
Drew Wolitarsky 2013 0.8373 101 receptions, 1,339 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns
Eric Carter 2013 0.8146 26 receptions, 276 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
Donovahn Jones 2013 0.8047 21 receptions, 410 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns. Dismissed as a sophomore prior to the Citrus Bowl.
Melvin Holland, Jr. 2014 0.8601 2 receptions, 8 receiving yards.
Isaiah Gentry 2014 0.8274 2 receptions, 36 receiving yards.
Conner Krizancic 2014 0.8029 No statistics recorded. Transferred as a redshirt freshman.
Desmond Gant 2014 NA Quit the team as a redshirt freshman to focus on track.
Hunter Register 2015 0.8386 1 reception, 6 receiving yards.
Rashad Still 2015 0.8073 22 receptions, 262 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns.
Tyler Johnson 2016 0.8643 11 receptions, 112 receiving yards, 1 touchdown.
Phillip Howard 2016 0.8509 No statistics recorded.
Drew Hmielewski 2016 0.8470 No statistics recorded.

To recap, the coaching staff has had 19 high school wide receivers sign a letter of intent over the last six years. Of those 19 scholarship wide receivers:

  • 1 was denied admission to the university.
  • 5 quit the team or transferred.
  • 2 were dismissed from the program.
  • 2 graduated.
  • 9 are currently on the team. 6 of those players have less than 12 career receptions or have not recorded any career statistics at all.

Bear in mind, these numbers do not include players that the coaching staff inherited. For example: Da’Jon McKnight and Derrick Engel. But it’s discouraging no matter how you slice it. In terms of talent — at least from the shaky standpoint of online recruiting services — they would all appear to be pretty much in the same ballpark (i.e. consensus "three star" recruits). Bizarrely enough, Maye and Fruechte — arguably the two most successful receivers in the last six years at Minnesota — both rank in the bottom three of this list according to their 247 Sports Composite Score coming out of high school. And I believe Maye was originally recruited as a running back.

Is it fair to blame the staff for talented players like Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison bailing? What does it say about the Gophers’ staff when they can find two diamonds-in-the-rough but then fail to develop six years worth of other wide receivers perceived to be more talented? Will Melvin Holland, Jr. and Isaiah Gentry ever see the light of day?

So many questions. So few solid answers.

Now, I’m not at practice every week. I don’t know who has been outperforming who. It’s entirely possible that Brian Smith could be the second best wide receiver on the roster. It’s entirely possible that virtually all of our scholarship wide receivers are not good enough to see the field. But if true, what does that say about Brian Anderson and the rest of the offensive coaching staff?

I also realize that Minnesota doesn’t operate the kind of offense that attracts elite talent at the wide receiver position. The coaching staff’s ideal offense does not see Mitch Leidner throwing the ball more than 30 times in a game. But you’re telling me that this staff can’t find convince one or two difference makers in the passing game to come to Minneapolis? Because this offense is desperately in need of playmakers at the wide receiver position. Can you even remember the last time the Gophers had a long touchdown pass? Or the last time a Gopher receiver found extra yards after the catch? Not a lot to choose from.

Personally, I think that the Gophers do have talent at the wide receiver position. They’re just not living up to their potential on the field, for whatever reason. Or they’re not being put in a position to succeed. Either way, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later if the Gophers intend to field a competent passing game.