A quick glance at the 2012 statistics sheet shows how badly the Gophers need some receivers to emerge this year.
Nobody on the current roster caught even 20 passes last year. A.J. Barker led the squad with 30 catches for 577 yards in eight games. Then, while recovering from an injury, he quit before the season was over.
The leading returnees are Derrick Engel (18 catches, 375 yards) and Isaac Fruechte (19 catches, 256 yards). Neither exactly arrived as a heralded recruit. Both transferred from smaller Minnesota colleges — Engel from Winona State and Fruechte from Rochester Community and Technical College — before taking advantage of opportunities last year.
Besides the Barker ordeal, the Gophers lost freshman receiver Jamel Harbison to a season-ending knee injury in last year’s season opener.
Another freshman, Andre McDonald, caught 10 passes for 121 yards before getting suspended for the Meineke Car Care Bowl for a violation of team rules. McDonald is not enrolled in school this spring. The Gophers say he could make up the credits and return for fall practice if he can work through some personal issues.
By Aug. 1, the Gophers will add two intriguing freshmen: 5-11 Eric Carter from Lakeland, Fla., and 6-3 Drew Wolitarsky, who broke California’s all-time receiving records at Canyon Country High School. Eventually, the Gophers also could move one of two freshman quarterbacks to receiver — either the 6-3 Donovahn Jones or the 6-2 Chris Streveler.
But for now, when the first-team offense lines up in spring practice, the Gophers have been using Engel and Fruechte, with Devin Crawford-Tufts (16 catches, 189 yards last year) split wide.
“It’s no secret that’s an area we’ve got to step up,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “We’ve got to improve, and I think those guys realize it.”
Quarterback Philip Nelson raves about the chemistry formed with his returning receivers during offseason workouts. The added familiarity could help Engel, Fruechte and Crawford-Tufts take steps forward. But when the team’s defensive backs are asked what impresses them most about the receiving corps this spring, the two names that they mention most are Harbison and KJ Maye.
Neither player is big. Maye is listed generously on the roster at 5-10, with Harbison at 5-11, so their impact likely would come as slot receivers in the mold of Denver’s Wes Welker.
Gophers coaches say Harbison was the best receiver coming out of camp last fall, so his was a crushing injury. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament and is now seven months removed from surgery. Harbison, who hails from Charlotte, N.C., said he’s about 85 percent speed-wise and plans to be back to 100 percent by Aug. 1.
“Yes, sir, no doubt,” he said. “Be ready for camp. Be ready for UNLV the first game.”
Maye was a quarterback at Murphy High School in Mobile, Ala. He started out as a running back with the Gophers before moving to receiver halfway through last season.
“There’s some things that KJ can do that really nobody else in our receiving corps can do,” Limegrover said. “So now it’s just a matter of letting him learn. You just see improvement with him every day.”
No doubt, the Gophers receiving corps has questions. But Limegrover said with continued development this year, Harbison and Maye could develop into “difference-makers.”