It has been a long time since the Gophers have had a true offensive threat at the wide receiver position. Eric Decker had an outstanding Gopher career and has parlayed that into a lengthy and productive NFL career. But since Decker the Gophers have failed to put a receiver on the field that forces Big Ten defenses to take notice.
Under the Kill/Claeys era there always seemed to be one receiver who would have a solid senior season, but rarely (never) was one developed earlier than that.
WHO IS GONE
Last year’s receiving core was very young. The lone senior was Eric Carter who managed to notch 4 receptions for 86 yards. Not exactly production that will be difficult to replace. In addition to the loss of Carter, Rashad Still and Mark Williams will no longer be wearing a Gopher uniform. The talented Still never bought into the new culture and missed a number of games last year due to not being allowed to play. He participated in 10 games, making just 2 catches.
So with very little leaving the program, does that mean that the Gopher passing game should be primed for a resurgent year? Setting quarterback question marks aside for now, there is certainly reason for optimism.
The breakout of Tyler Johnson, as a sophomore, is absolutely reason to be excited about the Gopher receivers. The Minneapolis native played in 10 games, made 35 catches for 677 yards and 7 touchdowns. Are those All-American type numbers? No, but those are really good numbers and reason to believe that there may be more in store for Johnson in 2018. Johnson will not blow you away with speed, but he is a receiver who can get separation to get open and shows toughness to go and get those 50/50 type balls. He was targeted often and was the ONLY Gopher wide receiver with a touchdown last season.
But wait...there’s more. There are some exciting young receivers in the stable as well, and the Matt Simon/PJ Fleck coaching combination is one that has demonstrated some ability to coach this particular position.
Demetrius Douglas earned his way on to the field as a true freshman and showed real promise in the firs three games of the season before losing the rest of the year to injury. 11 catches for 83 yards is what is responsible for. The staff saw something in him to be one of the few true freshmen who played in 2017 and he was granted a medical redshirt, giving him still 4 more years to play.
Phillip Howard finished 2nd on the team with 11 catches and 132 yards receiving. He will be coming into his redshirt sophomore year and though he may not be starting, he will be involved in the offense out of the slot.
Another 2017 freshman was Chris Autman-Bell. Autman-Bell had a very good Fall Camp and he was a guy that the staff desperately wanted to keep redshirted throughout the year. They feel very good about his talent. Watch for Bell to become a regular target this year to balance out the receiver threats.
I fully expect these three to be the primary receiver weapons (with the incoming freshman as wildcards). In addition to the four names mentioned above, Harry Van Dyne is a 6’5” redshirt freshmen with good speed, he too could very easily earn his way on to the field.
WHO IS ADDED
I’m actually pretty high on the likes of Douglas and Autman-Bell to compliment Johnson. But the receivers in the 2018 class are guys that we should all be very excited about. It is headlined by Rashod Bateman, the Georgia native who received a lot of attention from elite programs around the country after he led the state of Georgia in receiving as a senior. He is Bincredibly talented and never wavered in his commitment to Coach Fleck, in fact he already has a Row the Boat tattoo. He may very well be too talented to keep off the field this fall.
Jornell Manns and Erik Gibson are the other two incoming freshmen. Manns is an electric, slot type of a guy while Gibson is 6’3” and will be seen on the outside. These complimentary receivers may earn their way on to the field, but assuming health to the names mentioned above they will be prime redshirt candidates.
Of the previews written thus far, I’d have to say that this is unit is going to be the most obvious upgrade. Bateman is one we should all be excited about, Douglas is healthy and going to be a nice addition and Johnson should continue to develop and just may be a 1,000 yard guy. Very little was lost at this position with some exciting, young talent.
This unit absolutely needs to be more dangerous as it helps to open up the running game. So much of their production will depend on the quarterback, which we’ll get to next.
But I’m declaring this an obvious upgrade