There are several ways one can do positional previews as you near the season. My favorite way is to take a look at the positional group form 2015, compare it to this year's group and decided if this is an upgrade or a downgrade? Everyone is filled with optimism at this point every year but we have to try (TRY) to be a little objective to see if the optimism is warranted or not.
Starter: K.J. Maye, Drew Wolitarsky
Backup: Melvin Holland Jr, Eric Carter, Rashad Still
Needing someone in the receiving corp to step up, K.J. Maye did just that. The senior had statistically the best season by a Gopher receiver since Eric Decker was catching bullets from Adam Weber. His 73 receptions, 5 TDs and 773 yards were not exactly All-Big Ten caliber but it was a huge step forward from the 16 receptions he had as a junior and more than Maxx Williams who led the team that year with 36. And it wasn't just his volume, Maye caught a number of critical balls that extended drives or gave us late leads. There is no doubt his production and his trust from Mitch Leider will be missed.
Beyond Maye, the rest of the top receivers all return. Drew Wolitarsky was the team's 2nd leading receiver and had a solid season with 39 catches and over 500 yards. He too became a trusted target and was pretty consistently getting a few receptions per game. Eric Carter was averaging over 3 catches per game early in the year but injuries slowed him the rest of the year.
Then it came to a host of younger, but talented receivers who were all given opportunities to emerge. Melvin Holland Jr, was given early opportunities to start but a few key dropped passes, some injuries and he did not record a reception in the second half of the year. Isaiah Gentry was given a lot of publicity early but injuries continued to nag him and he never was able to consistently be on the field as a redshirt freshman. But finally it was Rashad Still who came out as a true freshman to emerge as a potential play-maker in this Gopher offense. It was really the final 5 regular season games where Still began showing his potential, particularly in the Michigan and Ohio State games where he combined for 8 catches, 110 yards and 2 TDs; including a 52 yard touchdown in the Michigan game.
Last year saw the Gopher passing game improve by nearly 1,000 yards and 115 receptions (including backs and TEs). The group called out above was a dramatic improvement over 2014, but what will 2015 look like?
Projected Starter: Drew Wolitarsky, Rashad Still, Eric Carter
Backup: Hunter Register, Brian Smith, Melvin Holland Jr, Isaiah Gentry
Youth: Tyler Johnson, Philip Howard
The biggest question is, who replaces the production of Maye? His 73 receptions, as mentioned above, were as much about making the key plays at the right times as it was about volume. All the rest of the names are the same and improvement is going to have to come from a few guys.
Wolitrasky is likely going to be the guy who Leidner looks to when he needs a key play to be made. In my brief experiences at Fall Camp, Woli looked like a favorite target (along with Lingen). He won't have the jets or supreme athletic ability to shake defenders and make huge plays, but he'll be open and will be a reliable target. Expect his receptions and yards to go up.
Rashad Still is one of two guys I'm looking at to be the team's big-play receiver. Still has a year of playing in the Big Ten under his belt and has added some much needed strength to his thin frame. But at 6'5" and now with some legit strength, he is primed to be a major weapon. The other guy who could fulfill this (or both of them) is redshirt freshman Hunter Register who sports a very similar frame and skill set. Both of these guys are big and athletic, they have the look of a really nice Big Ten receiver and over the next few years are going to be pretty darn good.
Though he is dinged up early in the season here, Eric Carter should not be forgotten. He was an early favorite target last season and the senior will be a starter when healthy. If anyone jumps into that K.J. Maye void and sees his production jump from a handful of catches to over 50, Carter is maybe the best bet.
I like those four names mentioned a lot, and that is about as deep and talented of a receiving corp as we've seen in here in a while. Woli, Still and Carter have all had their moments of being very productive, they compliment each other well and if they stay healthy they should be a really nice set of receivers. Register, along with the less reliable Holland Jr and oft injured Gentry, is incredibly gifted and could leapfrog guys on his way to a huge season as well.
It should also be mentioned that Brian Smith, the walk on junior from Wisconsin, is listed atop the depth chart and will be seeing plenty of snaps this season. He has shown, in practice, the ability to get open and make catches...a couple things that quarterbacks and coaches appreciate. Especially until Eric Carter is playing at full-speed, expect to see Brian Smith (#26) on the field.
Then you have the true freshmen of Tyler Johnson and Philip Howard. Johnson has arguably been the most impressive true freshman in Fall Camp and Claeys has already said that he will not be utilizing a redshirt on Johnson, this kid will play. Howard is listed on the depth chart, but it stands to reason that when Carter is healthy, he'll be bumped back down and would probably benefit from a redshirt year.
Upgrade or Downgrade?
Hard to say on this group. Overall, I like this group's depth and talent. Is it one of the top receiving groups in the Big Ten? No, but considering how weak this position has been for the Gophers in recent years, it is safe to say that this group is an improvement. There are a few guys capable of being the kind of weapons that a Big Ten defense has to account for and there are guys who are going to move the chains.
On the other hand, the loss of Maye is a big one to replace. He really came up huge last year and became that guy the offense needed in the passing game. His 73 receptions accounted for 30% of all completions last year. That's a big number to replace. While I say the depth is better and as those younger guys get experience, they'll get better as well; but it is hard to say this group is an improvement until I see someone (or someones) replacing the 30%.
As I'm trying not to be a total homer...I'll go with downgrade, but I like the chances of being wrong on this one.
Wolitarsky leads the team in receptions bumping his number up to around 55. Eric Carter more than doubles last year's production and has around 50 catches. And Rashad Still improves his numbers but also accounts for at least 4 touchdowns of 30 yards or more. Register makes a few huge plays as well but his production will be spotty.
Tyler Johnson makes a bunch of really tough catches over the middle and becomes a fan favorite.