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Minnesota Football 2017 Preview: Wide Receiver Upgrade / Downgrade

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Leading WR, Drew Wolitarsky is gone. Is this unit going to be an upgrade?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like year after year we are waiting for any number of young/athletic/raw/talented receivers on the Gopher roster to break out. And most seasons we get a 1-year bump from a senior and then back to wondering who will be “the guy” the following year. Last year it was Drew Wolitarsky who had a nice senior season and then we wonder...will this year be a upgrade?

2016

Starter: Drew Wolitarskiy Eric Carter, Rashad Still
Depth: Brian Smith, Melvin Holland Jr., Tyler Johnson, Isaiah Gentry, Hunter Register

As stated above, Wolitarsky had a really nice senior season. His 860 yards receiving was the most by a Gopher receiver since Adam Weber was connecting with Eric Decker in 2008. He was the go-to receiver for Mitch Leidner and finished 3rd in the Big Ten in receptions. After Woli’s 66 catches was Rashad Still with 18, 13 of which came in the final 5 games of the year. Still has shown big-play ability at times, but consistency and health have been issues.

Tyler Johnson was a true freshman and showed flashes of being a major part of the offense early before fading. His 14 catches was the third most among Gopher receivers in 2016.

Eric Carter had 23 catches in 2015 but saw that number drop in 2016 down to 9 receptions. And beyond that it was a couple guys who had a smattering of catches. Brian Smith had 17 but he’s no longer with the team. Hunter Register caught 1 pass and all of the remaining receptions were by tight ends and running backs.

2017

Starter: Rashad Still, Eric Carter, Tyler Johnson
Depth: Melvin Holland, Hunter Register, Drew Hmielewski, Philip Howard
Freshmen: Demetrius Douglas, Chris Autman-Bell, Harry Van Dyne

Now we need someone to step into the shoes of Wolitarsky and be that go-to receiver. The assumption is that Rashad Still is going to be that guy. He has all of the tools to be a very good Big Ten receiver. At 6’5” and 214 lbs with good speed, he’s athletic enough to be a difficult matchup for any Big Ten defensive back. He’s made big plays at times over his first two seasons, but consistency is his challenge.

With that said, Ryan Burns of GopherIllustrated has been covering practice and giving extensive practice notes on their message board. This was one interesting nugget on the wide receivers from this week.

Tyler Johnson is Minnesota best receiver right now, but Chris Bell and Demetrius Douglas are going to play this fall. I feel pretty damn good about saying that, and what impresses me the most about both is how many contested catches they win.

And the Star Tribune has a feature on Johnson today as well.

“I’m really, really impressed with Ty,” Fleck said. “He started a little slower, but now he has just poured it on.”

Johnson attributes his improvement to becoming more comfortable at receiver after being a standout quarterback in high school for the Polars.

“It was a very hard transition, but I’m picking it up pretty good,” Johnson said. “… I feel a lot more confident. I feel this coaching staff has helped me build my confidence a lot. I’m loving that progress.”

So maybe Tyler Johnson, in his sophomore year, becomes the Gopher’s leading receiver and is on his way to a fantastic Gopher career under the tutelage of PJ Fleck and Matt Simon. Eric Cater is the only senior receiver on the roster and expects to be on the field consistently along with the two names listed above.

After those three presumed starters you have several young guys to be molded by the new staff and whom all have an opportunity to earn their way on to the field. Opportunity is the key word here with several guys who could see significant playing time, but it is all about seizing the opportunity.

Melvin Holland Jr and Hunter Register are the upper classmen here who have a chance. I’ve always had a little bit of a football crush on Holland Jr and he, like Still and Register, has some raw tools to be a talented receiver at this level. Consistency is needed but there’s talent here. Register was left off the original camp roster of 105, so his path to contributing on the field seems a little steeper. (unclear to me if he is back on the 105 after Isaiah Gentry decided to be done with football)

Other returners are redshirt freshman Drew Hmielewski and sophomore Philip Howard. Hmielweski was injured last year, redshirted and looks to make an impact this year. Howard, like Johnson, was a factor in the offense early before trailing off. Built for the slot, Howard will be in the mix behind Carter.

Then comes the incoming freshmen. Demetrius Douglas has impressed in camp and it sounds like you will certainly see him on the field this year. The same can be said for Chris Autman-Bell who has been turning heads. Both were praised by Fleck in the Star Tribune article.

“Demetrius is not afraid of anything. He looks like he’s a three-year veteran already,” Fleck said of Douglas, the son of former Gophers receiver Omar Douglas.

Chris Bell, instead of playing video games — Chris Bell hates video games — he’d rather go outside and play 7-on-7,” Fleck added. “He’d rather play football.”

Matt Morse is a walk-on receiver who you may see on the field in certain situations. Mark Williams is continuing the transition to WR after trying QB when he first came to campus. And Harry Van Dyne the other true freshman on the roster, but I would expect you will see him, and his 6’5” frame, redshirt.

Upgrade/Downgrade

A starting trio of Still/Johnson/Carter is one that I like. Still and Johnson have the tools and will have the opportunity to become quite good in the Big Ten. Carter will be solid and consistent. After that there are a bevy of young receivers who will be presumably coached up the right way.

I have respect for what the previous staff did in getting the program back up to a respectable level. They recruited well at most positions, they had outstanding defenses, they left with two incredible running backs on the roster...but wide receiver was perpetually lagging. Whether it was not recruiting the right guys to the program or an inability to get the most out of them, it was a group always waiting for talent to emerge.

Of all the position groups, WR is the one that may most benefit from the new staff. I believe that in the coming years you will see this as a position of strength for the Gophers.

Will this year be an upgrade? I’m not sure. I want to say so, but I would lean neutral. Replacing the production of Wolitarsky will not be done easily. I’m excited about the young core of Johnson/Douglas/Autman-Bell/Howard/Hmielwesky, but this group may not really explode for another year. The x-factor this year is really Still. If he can show some consistency and buy in 100% to what he needs to do, this year could be a huge upgrade.

Poll

Gopher Wide Receivers Will Be...

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Upgrade - Fleck & Simon will get so much more out of these guys
    (373 votes)
  • 8%
    Downgrade - tough to replace Woli
    (43 votes)
  • 21%
    Neutral - who knows?
    (111 votes)
527 votes total Vote Now