The pass floated deep down the sideline. In one fluid motion, Chris Autman-Bell turned his body, leapt and hauled in a 34-yard completion over an Iowa cornerback.
The very next pass was a jump ball in the end zone. Rashod Bateman outjumped his defender for a 3-yard touchdown catch.
One drive, two impactful receptions, and neither involved Tyler Johnson. This constitutes progress for the Gophers football team.
Their offense features a legitimate receiving corps for the first time in what feels like forever. Not just one guy. Or even two. They now have three receivers who look like they belong in the Big Ten.
The Gophers finally have a complement to Johnson, who performed as a one-man act last season. The two freshmen, Bateman and Autman-Bell, have combined for 41 catches for 477 yards in five games. Bateman also has three touchdown catches.
Former star Ron Johnson holds the program record for catches by a freshman at 38 set in 1998. Both Bateman and Autman-Bell could surpass that mark.
Their development is still its infancy. They are showing potential, not a finished product. Saturday’s baptism into big-time football at Ohio State will serve as another valuable experience.
But in eye test and statistics, that position is the most improved on this 3-2 team by a country mile.
“Wide receiver is kind of our forte,” P.J. Fleck said. “I think you’re starting to see the development of a really special wide receiver unit here. That’s something we wanted to create the day we walked in here.”
They had the opposite last season. The Gophers owned one of the worst passing offenses in college football, and quarterback struggles weren’t the lone culprit.
The receiver position was basically Tyler Johnson or nothing. Receivers accounted for only 66 total catches all season, 35 by Johnson.
Comparatively, the current trio already has 69 catches in five games. Of the team’s 79 total catches this season, 73 have been by wide receivers — 92.4 percent, which ranks top five nationally.
The number of catches made by a wide receiver in the final two games last season could be counted on one hand. Two hands if one included the final four Big Ten games.
Their lack of production was embarrassing. Especially since the head coach played wide receiver in the NFL and previously coached that position in college and the NFL.
“When we go out to practice, the head coach above anything else is watching and evaluating and knowing the receivers and what they’re doing,” receivers coach Matt Simon said. “He’s very conscious of the wide receivers. Certainly he’s got a pulse of the entire football team, but when he’s watching us at practice he has a very strong pulse of what we’re doing. We want that pressure.”
Johnson has become one of the Big Ten’s best receivers despite uneven quarterback play throughout his career. Bateman is the fastest of the group. Autman-Bell has such strong hands that Fleck nicknamed him “Crab.”
The program has produced star wide receivers in the past — Ron Johnson and Eric Decker specifically — but true depth at that position has been fleeting.
Since 2008, only eight receivers total have caught at least 30 passes in a season. Never more than two in the same season. Barring injury, their three leading receivers should all reach that mark this season.
The most impressive aspect of strong starts by Bateman and Autman-Bell has been their ability to make contested catches that have a high degree of difficulty. Coaches call them 50-50 balls because the receiver and defender have equal shot at it. Fleck doesn’t believe in that percentage.
“When they are 50-50 they need to be more like 90-10,” he said. “That’s how we look at 50-50 balls. I understand we are going to play against really good players but [the defense] should only win 10 percent of the time if it’s a 50-50 ball.”
That’s confusing math, not to mention unrealistic expectations, but that illustrates Fleck’s confidence in his receivers. The Gophers have legitimate talent at their coach’s favorite position now.