They can see it in Drew Wolitarsky’s chiseled biceps, and the crisper route running by Donovahn Jones. They see KJ Maye at full speed again, finally healthy, and a herd of tall, fleet freshmen, led by Melvin Holland Jr., hungry for their chance.
The Gophers miss Derrick Engel, last year’s top wide receiver, but they insist their overall receiver production will be better this year.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve improved ourselves in that area,” coach Jerry Kill said.
With Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner sharing quarterback duties last season, the Gophers averaged 148.1 passing yards per game, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th in the nation.
Now Nelson is gone, and for seven months, the receivers have known their mission is to sync with Leidner. The results can be seen in these early practices, with Leidner more confident and comfortable as a redshirt sophomore, and his receivers hauling in passes.
An offense that ran on 69 percent of its offensive plays last season needs to diversify, especially against TCU, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and other tough run-stopping defenses on the schedule.
“When we start seeing eight, nine [defenders] in the box, we’ve got to be able to throw the ball downfield and make some catches,” Kill said. “But we also have improved our receiving corps, and sometimes the receiver can make a quarterback look good.”
Last week, Leidner was comparing his situation with former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber’s. When reminded that Weber had Eric Decker, Leidner smiled and said, “Yeah, well I have [tight end] Maxx Williams.”
Leidner then reeled off his receivers’ attributes, going up and down the list.
Beyond Williams, the most likely go-to target is Wolitarsky, a sophomore who had four receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown in the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Wolitarsky is California’s all-time high school leader in catches (281) and yardage (5,148).
He’s 6-3 and played at about 225 pounds last year but was admittedly soft. He spent the offseason maintaining his weight but decreasing his body fat, and he’s notably stronger.
“He’s a kid who knows he’s got great physical tools; he knows he just can’t rely on them,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “He’s got to get every advantage he can. The fact that we featured him, and we’re trying to get him the football, I think he realizes that and he doesn’t want to let us down.”
The bowl game was a teaching tool for Wolitarsky. He learned how effective he could be, and he won’t forget missing Leidner’s last-minute Hail Mary.
“It’s the first game I really felt comfortable out there with the speed and everything,” Wolitarsky said. “Also just finishing the game out; I didn’t focus the whole time. You get tired at the end with that two-minute [offense]. But that’s why we’re doing it at the end of every practice. So you can keep your head, keep your composure and eventually make that last play.”
Jones made some nice plays last year as a freshman, especially when the Gophers featured him on the jet sweep. He had three catches for 47 yards against Michigan State’s stingy defense but got completely shut down in the bowl game.
“If you go back to last [August], Donovahn was a quarterback,” Leidner said. “And I hate to say this, but it’s not like me and Phil [Nelson] would sit down with guys all summer long like I did this year. So Drew and Donovahn didn’t learn the playbook until we got to camp. Now we’re hitting camp and guys know the whole playbook already. That makes my job so much easier.”
With the same conviction, Leidner insists Isaac Fruechte and Logan Hutton shouldn’t be forgotten as senior receivers. As if to prove his point, he has found them both repeatedly in practice, along with slot receivers Maye and Eric Carter, who were both limited last year by injuries.
Kill has yet to test his true freshman receivers with the first- and second-team offense, but it seems a matter of time, especially with Holland. It’s clear the Gophers were targeting length and speed with their receivers in this recruiting class. Besides the 6-3 Holland, there is the 6-4 Isaiah Gentry, the 6-3 Desmond Gant and the 6-2 Conner Krizancic.
“A lot of those guys are really raw,” Leidner said. “They were dang good high school receivers, but it’s obviously a lot different [in college]. But I love their work ethic. They bring it every single day.”