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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Previews - Wide Receivers

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The Gophers have had player development issues at wide receiver, but there is reason for optimism

Northwestern v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Leading up to the Gophers’ spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 15, we’re breaking down each position group. Today, we’re taking a hard look at a position where the Gophers desperately need more production: Wide receiver.

Key Departure(s): Drew Wolitarsky
Key Returner(s): Rashad Still, Tyler Johnson, Eric Carter, Melvin Holland, Jr., Isaiah Gentry, Drew Hmielewski, and Phillip Howard
Spring Enrollee(s): None
Fall Enrollee(s): Chris Autman-Bell, Demetrius Douglas, and Harry Van Dyne

The Golden Gophers must weather the graduation of last year’s leading receiver, Drew Wolitarsky. The senior wideout recorded 66 receptions, 860 receiving yards, and five touchdowns in his final season at Minnesota. The closest receiver in terms of production was Rashad Still, who hauled in 18 receptions for 349 receiving yards with no touchdowns.

New wide receivers coach Matt Simon is an upgrade

It’s no secret that I was not at all impressed with the previous coaching staff’s player development at the wide receiver position. Just three scholarship receivers caught double-digit passes last season, and the travel roster included three walk-on wideouts at one point. The position was grossly mismanaged, to say the least.

But the good news is that the Gophers have proven commodities in new head coach P.J. Fleck and wide receivers coach Matt Simon, and both should provide an immediate boost in terms of player development. Fleck was a wide receiver at Northern Illinois before a brief stint in the NFL as a member of the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad. Prior to becoming a head coach, he was the wide receivers coach at Northern Illinois and Rutgers and in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At Rutgers, Fleck helped current NFL receiver Mohamed Sanu take a significant leap in production from his sophomore season (44 receptions, 418 receiving yards, two touchdowns) to his junior season (115 receptions, 1,206 receiving yards, seven touchdowns).

Simon was also a wide receiver at Northern Illinois — where Fleck was his position coach for two seasons — and held a spot on the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad for two years. The Farmington native served as an offensive quality control assistant at his alma mater before coaching tight ends at the University of St. Thomas for a year. He coached wide receivers for one season at Rutgers before Fleck hired him for the same position at Western Michigan. In three seasons with the Broncos, Simon oversaw the development of current NFL prospect Corey Davis. The Illinois native had one scholarship offer coming out of high school, but finished his Broncos career with 332 receptions, 5,285 receiving yards, and 52 touchdowns. In 2015, Simon had not one but two 1,000-yard receivers in Davis (90 receptions, 1,436 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns) and Daniel Braverman (108 receptions, 1,367 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns).

Be excited about Simon.

In terms of what will be expected from the wide receivers in the Gophers’ offense under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, expect more read routes and smash concepts (a corner route from the inside receiver and a quick hitch route from the outside receiver). The offense is predicated on the quarterback getting the ball out quickly to receivers in space, and the onus is on the receivers to find chunks of yards after the catch — which is something Gopher fans have not seen in quite some time. I welcome the change with open arms.

Can the Gophers convert potential into production?

Rashad Still is the leading candidate to replace Wolitarsky as the Gophers’ leading receiver. The 6’5’’, 225-lb. junior wide receiver had a promising freshman season where he emerged as a red zone threat, hauling in 18 passes for 194 receiving yards and three touchdowns. But he didn’t take a significant step forward last year, in part because he suffered a broken clavicle in the season opener against Oregon State and missed three games early in the year. Still finished the season with 18 receptions, 349 receiving yards, and no touchdowns. The coaches are high on his physical tools, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can help him tap into his potential.

Behind Still, there is a lot of uncertainty. Senior Eric Carter hasn’t caught more than four passes in a single game, and has recorded just 33 receptions, 384 receiving yards, and one touchdown over three seasons. Sophomore Tyler Johnson looked like a rising star early in the season, before fading down the stretch. He would finish the season with 14 receptions, 141 receiving yards, and one touchdown, but didn’t catch a pass in the final three games.

I am not certain that we’ve seen all that Melvin Holland, Jr. and Isaiah Gentry have to offer. The redshirt junior wide receivers have been non-factors during their Gopher careers thus far, but I’m not convinced that either of them is entirely to blame for that. Holland, in particular, is a strange case. Despite reports (and video evidence) that he tears it up in practice, he didn’t see a single offensive snap last year. I am hopeful that at least one, if not both, of them will have a breakout season under the new coaching staff.

This spring will also offer our first look at redshirt freshmen Drew Hmielewski and Phillip Howard. I’ve heard more than a few people mention Hmielewski as one to watch going forward. He is back to practice after undergoing shoulder surgery last summer.

The Gophers also having a promising young group of freshman wide receivers arriving on campus this fall, with Chris Autman-Bell, Demetrius Douglas, and Harry Van Dyne. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Autman-Bell or Douglas contributing early in their careers.

The development of this position group is arguably as important as the quarterback competition this spring and fall, in my opinion. I’m excited to see what this group is capable of with an offensive coaching staff that has a track record of success.

Next: Tight Ends.