It’s easy to see on paper why the Gophers receiving corps ranks among the worst in the Big Ten in most preseason publications. Their two leading returning receivers — junior Isaac Fruechte and senior Derrick Engel — combined last year for 37 catches, 631 yards and three touchdowns.
For comparison, Penn State’s top returning wide receiver, Allen Robinson, practically doubled that production all by himself, with 77 catches, 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns.
But Engel and Fruechte can’t wait to see what’s possible this year. If people doubt them, what else is new? Each has dealt with that for years.
“It’s definitely motivating to us to prove people wrong,” Engel said. “Our goal is to lead the Big Ten in receiving. We’ve got to shoot for the stars, if we want to make a run at this thing [as a team].”
If that sounds lofty, consider how far these two receivers have come just to reach this point.
Neither had Division I scholarship offers during high school. Engel transferred to Minnesota from Winona State, and Fruechte from Rochester Community and Technical College. Each toiled for thousands of hours, behind the scenes, before finally making his way to the Big Ten stage last season.
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Fruechte is a 6-3, 212-pound junior, and like Engel, he can run the 40-yard dash in about 4.4 seconds. In high school, Fruechte went to football camps in Tennessee and Texas and thought his tools compared pretty well with the more highly touted recruits.
“It was like, what do I have to do?” Fruechte said. “My dad just told me I had to keep working, and God has a plan for me, really.”
Fruechte is from Caledonia, a small town in the southeast corner of Minnesota. His father, Carl, was the head coach at Caledonia High School, and together they won two Class 2A state championships.
“His daddy’s not a good football coach — his daddy’s a great football coach,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.
Fruechte has seen other Caledonia players emerge from below the radar. In 2006, Karl Klug couldn’t get more than a walk-on offer from Minnesota, so he went to Iowa, where he blossomed into a second-team All-Big Ten defensive lineman. He had seven sacks as a rookie for the Tennessee Titans in 2011 and is entering his third NFL season.
“Maybe it’s just a small-town thing,” Fruechte said with a shrug.
Fruechte made the most of his one year in junior college, catching 30 passes for 805 yards and nine touchdowns at RCTC. Kill’s staff made Fruechte part of its first recruiting class in 2011, and he redshirted that fall before emerging as a starter for nine games last season.
“Playing at a smaller high school, and then having to go to junior college, I always had to have something special about me to get somebody’s attention,” Fruechte said. “And I’ve reflected that in my preparation, film study, extra lifting, stuff like that, to get better.”
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Engel’s father, Joel, was an All-America basketball player at Augsburg, where his mother, Karen, was an All-America hurdler. At Chaska High School, Engel excelled in football and track, but he had a slender, 6-2 frame.
He played two years at Winona State, leading the team in receiving as a sophomore, and the thought of playing for the Gophers never left his mind.
“I knew it was always an option,” Engel said. “After a while, I just thought, it’s either now or never, so I might as well take a shot at this thing. So that’s what I did.”
Engel transferred to Minnesota and sat out the 2011 season under NCAA rules. Last year, he gradually climbed the depth chart as other receivers fell off. Jamel Harbison tore up a knee, A.J. Barker thrived for a while before quitting, and Andre McDonald missed the Meineke Car Care Bowl because of a violation of team rules.
Suddenly, Engel emerged as quarterback Philip Nelson’s go-to guy in the bowl game, catching four passes for 108 yards against Texas Tech. Heading into spring practice, he bulked up from 175 pounds to 187, and he said he was able to maintain his speed.
“I’ve definitely accomplished some of my goals, but I’m not done yet,” Engel said. “I’m not satisfied. I want to keep getting better and keep seeing where football takes me.”