As P.J. Fleck and his Gophers football coaching staff work to decide their starter at quarterback leading into the Aug. 31 season opener against Buffalo, there’s another big question waiting for an answer:
Who will catch those passes?
Drew Wolitarsky, the Gophers’ leading receiver last year, has graduated and with it his 66 receptions, 860 yards and five touchdowns. That leaves no returnee in the wide receiving corps with more than 18 catches in 2016, and only one of those grabs was for a touchdown.
Not an ideal situation for an offense, but Fleck sees some positive signs.
The first is sophomore Tyler Johnson, the former Minneapolis North standout who started strong last year, saw fewer passes late and finished with 14 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. So far in training camp, Johnson has caught his coach’s eye.
“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.”
Senior receiver Eric Carter sees Johnson rebounding from a tough finish in 2016, when he didn’t have a reception in the final three games of the season.
“He responded very well,” Carter said. “He came in very hungry. He’s been doing pretty good things this camp.”
The Gophers’ leading returning wide receiver from 2016 is junior Rashad Still, who had 18 catches for 349 yards. That’s a team-best 19.4 yards per grab. At 6-5 and 214 pounds, Still has the frame to be a go-to target, and Fleck is pressuring him to improve.
“He’s getting better. We just have to get consistency from him,” Fleck said. “He knows that. … We’re putting a lot on his plate, because if you’re gonna be The Dude, you have to handle a lot on your plate.”
A pair of true freshman wideouts — Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell — quickly have earned Fleck’s praise for their poise and production. Autman-Bell did hobble off the field during Tuesday’s practice, and Fleck indicated he would be evaluated.
But being in a Big Ten training camp hasn’t fazed either player.
“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.”
Johnson, too, sees the potential in the youngsters and wants to help develop them.
“I like those young guys a lot,” he said. “I’m taking them in on a wing and making sure they can be the best receivers they can be. I’m on them every day in practice, just making them try to get better.”
Added Carter, the graybeard of the Gophers wideouts as a fifth-year senior: “There’s a lot of guys who are young, but the big thing about it is there are a lot of guys who are hungry. We’re not trying to use [youth] as an excuse.
“We want to mature now. We want to get it done now.’’