Between now and the Gophers' spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 9, we'll be breaking down each position group on both offense and defense. We'll take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and what to watch for before Minnesota takes the field for fall training camp.
Next up? The wide receivers and tight ends.
As I've done throughout these position breakdowns, I'd like to note that this position group features one of the team's captains, and that captain is Brandon Lingen.
Lingen is the lone junior among the team's captains for 2016. Lingen is coming off a breakout season that saw him step into the role vacated by Maxx Williams, the former Gopher tight end now playing on Sundays for the Baltimore Ravens. Lingen tallied 33 receptions for 428 yards with 3 touchdowns in 2015, including two games in which he had more than 100 yards receiving (a feat that his predecessor never accomplished in his career at Minnesota). Lingen was also a second-team Academic All-American in 2015, in addition to being named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.
Key Departure(s): KJ Maye, Lincoln Plsek, and Desmond Gant
Key Returner(s): Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter, Rashad Still, and Brandon Lingen
New Arrival(s): Drew Hmielewski, Phillip Howard, Tyler Johnson, and Ko Kieft
The graduation of KJ Maye leaves another gaping hole in the Gophers' receiving corps. Maye developed into Mitch Leidner's go-to target on third and fourth down, accounting for 773 yards on 73 receptions with five touchdowns. But the Gophers' weathered the loss of Maxx Williams, and I have no doubt they'll be able to do it again.
A season ago, everyone was looking to the crop of promising redshirt freshmen wide receivers -- Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland, Jr., and Desmond Gant -- to step up. We all know how that went. Gentry was sidelined for much of the season due to injury, Holland didn't make much of an impact when he saw on the field, and Gant transferred after the bowl game due to a lack of playing time. I am hopeful Gentry and Holland will be a bigger part of the passing game this coming season, but I don't foresee either of them filling in for Maye. No, I think Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter, and Rashad Still are your top candidates to become Leidner's new favorite wide receiver.
Wolitarsky will be the lone senior at the wide receiver position this fall. He was expected to be a big part of the passing game last season, but aside from a 114-yard performance against Colorado State, he disappeared for long stretches at a time, and was often prone to dropping passes when the ball came his way. He would finish the season with 524 receiving yards on 39 receptions with three touchdowns. Carter is a close match for Maye in terms of size and ability, and my early pick to replace his production in the passing game. His numbers from last season -- 23 receptions for 255 yards and one touchdown -- mirror what Maye recorded the year before his breakout season -- 16 receptions for 298 yards and one touchdown. That, coupled with his gutsy and resilient style of play, has me feeling good about his chances for a strong year.
Still developed into a much-needed red zone target for Leidner last season. Most people will remember that terrific fade pass to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown against Illinois, and his 52-yard touchdown catch against Michigan on Halloween. Most of his action came in the latter half of the season, so the hope is that he can build off that and become a much more consistent threat in the passing game next season.
While Still saw plenty of action a season ago, his freshman counterpart Hunter Register did not. We'll see what Register can do with a redshirt year under his belt, but I'm not expecting much after what we saw from last season's crop of redshirt freshmen. It remains to be seen how much playing time converted quarterback Chris Streveler will receive at wide receiver. And I would be surprised if incoming freshmen Drew Hmielewski, Phillip Howard, and Tyler Johnson do not redshirt. I am assuming Howard and Johnson will end up at receiver, but it is possible one or both could shift to the defensive side of the ball once they're on the practice field.
It is also worth nothing that graduating senior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun singled out redshirt freshman receiver Adam Mayer as one to watch. Boddy-Calhoun praised Mayer for always challenging him in practice. So keep an eye on Mayer this spring. We'll see if he can convert his scout team accolades into more playing time.
At the tight end position, expect the Leidner-to-Lingen connection to continue. Lincoln Plsek, the team's best blocking tight end, was expected back after sitting out all of last season due to injury, but he has instead moved on from the program. That leaves redshirt sophomore Nate Wozniak as the most experienced tight end, next to Lingen. His blocking at times was less than spectacular last season, but if he can continue to develop, that
6'7" 6'10", 260-lb. frame is going to be one heck of a matchup problem for opposing defenses. Redshirt junior Duke Anyanwu has been described as the most athletic tight end on the roster, but injuries have kept him off the field entirely.
With the injuries to Plsek and Anywanu last season, Nick Hart, a redshirt junior walk-on, and Noah Scarver, a redshirt junior transfer from Montana, saw more snaps than I think anyone was expecting (or hoping). Hart, in particular, made the most of it, recording nine receptions for 84 receiving yards. As two of the most experienced tight ends behind Lingen, it'll be interesting to see how much Hart and Scarver see the field, especially with redshirt sophomore Jerry Gibson shifting to the defensive line. Incoming freshman Ko Kieft will undoubtedly redshirt this season.
The coaching staff has also talked up the development of redshirt freshman Colton Beebe, a tight end previously thought of as a fullback. But as I mentioned in the running backs preview, Tracy Claeys and new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson expect the tight end position to become more interchangeable with the fullback position. So keep an eye on how the fullback and tight end positions are utilized in the offense this spring.