Matt Limegrover was right. Faced with a roster in August that included nearly a dozen receivers but almost no experience, the Gophers offensive coordinator nevertheless was confident that there was a go-to receiver somewhere in the bunch.
"It's not always who you expect, but once the games begin, somebody will seize the opportunity," Limegrover said early in training camp.
Sure enough, redshirt junior walk-on A.J. Barker -- almost an afterthought in preseason forecasts -- emerged as the guy, at once both the most dynamic and most reliable pass-catcher on the team. He piled up 30 catches (seven for touchdowns) before anyone else had half as many.
But Barker injured an ankle vs. Purdue, sat out against Michigan, and "unless a miracle takes place," according to coach Jerry Kill, won't play at Illinois, either. And that exposes -- or creates an opportunity for, take your pick -- a receiving corps that hasn't developed a sure-fire second choice.
"In some ways, you're starting from scratch," Limegrover said Tuesday.
The Gophers, as has been their custom even with Barker in the lineup, completed passes to nine different receivers in Saturday's 35-13 loss to Michigan, but nobody had more than three catches and only one completion gained more than 14 yards.
"We knew we would miss A.J.'s production, and that it would have to come from somewhere else," said redshirt junior Derrick Engel, who had catches of 32 and 13 yards against Michigan. "We had a couple of nice catches, but we've still got to be more effective and make bigger plays to be effective. And we just weren't able to do that."
Injuries have been part of the problem, and not just with Barker. Senior Brandon Green has been sidelined for much of the season because of swelling in his knees. MarQueis Gray was moved to receiver after suffering a leg injury as Minnesota's quarterback, and he clearly still is unable to explode off the line or jump for an overthrown ball like he once was. Plus, he's relearning the position.
"Wide receiver is not something you just go out and play. It's a difficult deal," Kill said. "He told [receivers coach Pat] Poore, 'Man, I don't know -- this is all new to me.'"
And even the newcomers have been banged up.
"A guy we need to get going is Devin [Crawford-Tufts, a sophomore]. He's had some hamstring problems," Kill said. "Isaac [Fruechte, a sophomore] missed a game and came back off a concussion, and we need to get him going. They're both long and they can run. But I'd like to see those guys step up a bit."
The Gophers managed only 147 passing yards against Michigan, virtually matching the 149 freshman quarterback Philip Nelson threw for in his debut at Wisconsin but far less than the 246 he collected against Purdue.
"We want to come in and get at least 250. Get the running game going and let the passing game get going off that. And it just didn't happen," Engel said. "We had some nice opportunities, with good field position, that we've got to capitalize on."
Limegrover said he's not worried about developing a No. 1 receiver on the fly, even though he believes he's got more players who could snag the role.
"We'll figure that out as we go. It's hard to anoint somebody -- it's got to be a feel and a production thing," he said. "It isn't like we're searching; it's more like, we're trying to put guys in the best position to be successful."
That's because they split their receivers into personnel groupings, and send entire units on the field at once, depending upon the situation. Michigan played a press coverage -- bumping and jamming receivers on the line of scrimmage to slow their route-running -- and it affected the timing of the passing game, too.
"Guys have different specialties, different things we try and take advantage of with their skills," Limegrover said. "So getting it to different people isn't necessarily that big a surprise."
Still, Limegrover said, it's a shame that Barker went down after catching eight passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns in just a game and a half of working with Nelson.
"You felt like they had a rapport and things were going well, and then he bums up his ankle," Limegrover said. "But it's the Big Ten -- things are going to happen."