In his quest to become a better playmaker, Gophers wide receiver Donovahn Jones sidled up to one of the NFL’s best. Larry Fitzgerald was on campus this summer, running his annual camp, so Jones introduced himself and soaked up all the wisdom he could.
“There’s nothing really stopping me from getting there besides me,” Jones said.
In other words, the talent is there if he can just find a way to maximize it. And therein lies the hope for Jones and several other key skill-position players much like him, as the Gophers open a new season Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
The opponent is Eastern Illinois, a team that went 12-2 last year and defeated San Diego State. But the Panthers are from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), so this should be an offensive showcase for the Gophers.
They did plenty of soul searching this offseason after going 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown late last season. They met with consultants, studied hundreds of hours of film, re-evaluated their schemes, added strength and speed, and practiced and practiced.
An offense that had been so integral to the team’s 8-2 start was the main culprit in the 0-3 finish against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse. The touchdown drought was even more exasperating for the Gophers because they kept reaching the red zone, kept getting chances to make plays and kept coming up short.
“The way I look at our offense right now, it’s like the Cheez-It commercial,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “You’ve got a doctor sitting there. He’s got the two spots [on his checklist] — ready or not ready. We’ve been kind of in that not-ready category.
“When those plays presented themselves — there weren’t a whole lot of them — but when they did, we didn’t take advantage. So instead of losing to Michigan State 14-3, we’ve got to find a way to make that a 17-14 game this year.”
One drive that summarized the drought can be found early in the fourth quarter of the Michigan State game, when the Gophers drove 77 yards on 17 plays. They had first-and-10 on the Spartans’ 11-yard line, but David Cobb was stuffed twice for no gain, and then Mitch Leidner was sacked and fumbled.
The ending to that sequence could have been prevented if someone, somewhere in the middle of that nine-minute, 21-second drive had broken a big one.
For the season, the Gophers ranked 100th out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with only 19 plays that gained at least 30 yards.
They hit too many opposite-field singles. They needed more home runs.
This year, they have strong depth at running back, with the speedy Berkley Edwards ready to enter the mix. They have a veteran offensive line that got beat up during training camp. They have a respected leader at quarterback, in Leidner, who just needs to overcome his inexperience. And they are loaded with tight ends with the hope of getting more from their wide receivers.
Will this offense be more explosive? Here are seven guys who hold the key:
The stat: Of Leidner’s 78 passes last year, only two went for 30-plus-yard gains.
The skinny: Philip Nelson’s departure cleared the way for Leidner to be the uncontested starter for the next three years. The Gophers love Leidner’s leadership and grit, but his success or failure will depend on his arm. He’ll need more plays like the two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in the bowl game — a 20-yarder to Maxx Williams and a 55-yarder to Drew Wolitarsky.
The quote: “He’s kind of got that edge to him, which I think you need as a quarterback,” coach Jerry Kill said of Leidner. “He’s worked very, very hard at throwing the football. When we recruited him, that was one of the things we loved about him; he threw the football very well.”
The stat: Williams tied for the team lead with five touchdown receptions last year as a freshman, including three in the final five games.
The skinny: He’s as important to this team as Jimmy Graham is to the Saints, which is why the Gophers held their collective breath when Williams injured a knee in the final minute of the bowl game. The relief was palpable when the team realized Williams wouldn’t need surgery. The trainers were cautious with Williams during spring practice, but he was back to 100 percent by June and was a frequent target during training camp.
The quote: “To be a playmaker, I think the biggest key is always expecting you’re going to get the ball,” Williams said. “Every route, no matter what, when you’re coming out of your break, you’re expecting the ball to be there.”
The stat: Cobb led the Gophers with nine plays that gained 25 or more yards last year, including rushes of 60, 59 and 44 yards.
The skinny: Cobb started the season third on the tailback depth chart, but once he emerged, the Gophers rode him hard, giving him 27 or more carries in four of the final six games. He rushed for more than 100 yards six times. But Cobb spent the offseason thinking about the chances he missed to break more big plays.
The quote: “That’s the thing we stressed in the offseason, making those people miss in space and finishing off those 50-, 60-, 70-yard runs,” Cobb said. “Just being more explosive, learning how to beat angles, using that off aras a stiff arm, some of those things I’ve been working on might help me a little bit.”
The stat: Edwards averaged 6.5 yards per carry and scored 21 touchdowns for Chelsea (Mich.) High School in 2012.
The skinny: The 5-9, 190-pound Edwards was the Michigan state champ in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. Edwards’ father, Stan, and brother, Braylon, starred at Michigan before moving on to the NFL. The Gophers planned to play Edwards as a true freshman last year but redshirted him after he suffered a high ankle sprain late in training camp. Now, Edwards figures to be featured on the jet sweep and bubble screens as a wide receiver and get some carries out of the backfield.
The quote: “When you are able to have David Cobb and Berkley Edwards and Donovahn Jones and Maxx Williams in the ballgame at the same time — that’s what good offenses do,” Limegrover said. “That’s what makes it tough on people to defend.”
The stat: As a true freshman, Jones had his best receiving game against Indiana (three catches, 59 yards) and best rushing game against Nebraska (four rushes, 42 yards).
The skinny: Recruited from Georgia as a quarterback, the 6-3 Jones converted to receiver during training camp and was extremely raw. The Gophers began using him on the jet sweep against Nebraska, and his production rose. His three receptions for 47 yards against Michigan State all came on key third-down conversions. But he didn’t have a single catch or rush in the bowl game.
The quote: “I don’t want him to try to become the man on Day 1, Day 2, Week 1,” wide receivers coach Brian Anderson said. “We just need for him to get a little better every day, and good things are going to happen.”
The stat: Wolitarsky set California high school records for receptions (281) and receiving yards (5,148), breaking the marks held by former New York Giants receiver Steve Smith.
The skinny: The 6-3, 225-pound Wolitarsky was one of the team’s most targeted receivers last year as a true freshman. His breakout performance came in the Texas Bowl, when he caught four passes for 94 yards. He just missed another big one, though, as a Hail Mary pass from Leidner went off his arm. Wolitarsky is listed as questionable for Thursday’s game with an unspecified injury, but the Gophers say it’s nothing that will keep him out for an extended period.
The quote: “The big difference between the two [Jones and Wolitarsky] is Drew’s been a receiver all his life,” Anderson said.
The stat: Maye flashed his potential with a 45-yard kick return in 2012 and a 37-yard reception last year.
The skinny: The 5-10, 195-pound Maye played quarterback in high school in Mobile, Ala., but eagerly became a wide receiver for the Gophers. He emerged as a go-to target during spring practice, and his 37-yard reception came on a pretty over-the-shoulder pass from Leidner against Western Illinois. But Maye suffered a sports hernia injury that game and wasn’t the same. He played in all 13 games but finished the year with only seven catches for 70 yards. Now, he’s back at full speed.
The quote: “I have to tell you,” Kill said last weekend, “the guy that’s had the best camp is KJ Maye, without a doubt.”