Gophers coach P.J. Fleck sent a message Tuesday: If you don't catch the football, you might not play.
The Gophers released their depth chart for Saturday's game against No. 5 Wisconsin, and a trio of redshirt freshmen — Mark Williams, Phillip Howard and Clay Geary — are listed as starters. Conspicuously absent from the depth chart — a document that is subject to change — were junior Rashad Still, who made a 36-yard reception in last week's 39-0 loss at Northwestern, and senior Eric Carter, who was listed as a starter against the Wildcats.
Minnesota (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) got little from its passing game Saturday, with leading receiver Tyler Johnson sidelined for the rest of the regular season because of a broken left hand. Quarterback Demry Croft completed his first two passes for 43 yards but was 0-for-9 with three interceptions the rest of the game, and his receivers dropped six passes.
"We've got to coach 'em better," Fleck said. "… If you do the right things, you're going to be a part of this program. If you don't do the right things, you're not going to be part of this program."
Fleck said the changes weren't suspensions, but he did imply players needed to pay attention to their craft.
"It's one of those things that goes for every area, it goes for working on getting your game better," he said. "That's not just the 20 hours that you're allowed during practice. That's getting yourself better so that when you do get in game situations, whether you're experienced or not experienced, whether you're young or you're old, you get in there and you execute."
That wasn't the case Saturday. Still, a 6-5, 212-pounder, showed promise with an over-the-shoulder catch for a 36-yard gain on Minnesota's first play but didn't make a positive impact the rest of the way. Running back Rodney Smith had the Gophers' other reception, a 7-yard catch on their second play. Carter didn't have a catch. Nor did Howard, Williams, redshirt freshman Drew Hmielewski and junior Will Reger.
Johnson has emerged as the Gophers' go-to receiver, catching 35 passes for 677 yards and seven touchdowns. His average of 19.3 yards per reception leads the Big Ten and ranks 16th nationally. Fleck on KFXN-FM said that the sophomore from Minneapolis would be out four to five weeks.
After Johnson, the Gophers' No. 2 pass-catcher is Smith, who has 15 catches for 93 yards. Howard is tied with freshman Demetrius Douglas for third with 11 catches, and Douglas was shut down after the third game of the season because of an injury. Carter has four catches, and Still and Williams two apiece.
With that lack of production, the Gophers rank 121st nationally at 133.9 passing yards per game.
Geary, a walk-on and former Lakeville North standout, was a surprising addition to the depth chart. He has yet to play, according to game participation logs, but the 5-10, 191-pounder had three receptions in the spring game.
Recent drops by receivers is high on Fleck's priority list to fix.
"It's all part of those growing pains. It's not fun to go through. It's not fun. I don't enjoy them dropping the ball," he said. "The worst coaching advice I can give is, 'Hey, catch the ball!' That's a statement, that's obvious. It's getting them to learn how to catch it better."