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Minnesota wide receiver A.J. Barker.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

GOPHERS VS. NORTHWESTERN

11 a.m. Saturday • TCF Bank Stadium • TV: ESPN2 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

Gophers receivers starting to catch on

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • October 11, 2012 - 11:54 AM

A.J. Barker is Minnesota's leading receiver so far, but he's the only one in double digits, and at his current pace, he would finish the season with the fewest catches by a Gophers leader since the 2005 season.

Wow, they must not have many good receivers.

Then again, 13 different Gophers have caught passes, including seven wide receivers -- five of whom are on pace to catch a dozen passes the season, the most by a Minnesota team since 2006.

Gee, they must have an abundance of good receivers.

So which is it? Is the Gophers' cast-of-thousands approach building a deep and talented group of pass-catchers, or would Jerry Kill trade the whole gaggle of them for a single sticky-fingered Eric Decker?

"Oh, I want them all to step forward," Kill said of his chorus line of receivers. "If you want to be good, you'd better have five receivers that are special. If you have just one really good one, it's easy to stop one guy."

Point taken. So far, nobody really has stopped Barker, who has caught 19 passes and four touchdowns on the year, and at least four passes in each of the Gophers' past three games. But the work from the walk-on from DeLaSalle is being supplemented by a random-as-a-box-of-chocolates corps of understudies. Here's Devin Crawford-Tufts, breaking off a 40-yard gain against Syracuse. Here's Isaac Fruechte, getting himself open for a couple of touchdowns. Here's Derrick Engel, putting backup quarterback Max Shortell at ease by catching a 32-yard pass on Shortell's first play. And here's Marcus Jones, sparking a Gophers rally in Iowa with a huge fourth-quarter gain ...

Oh, hold on. That last one "hit me in a bad spot," Jones said with a half-anguished laugh. "Hit me dead in my hands."

OK, so there are ups and downs with such a young group of receivers, and while Jones dropped that possible touchdown pass in Iowa City -- "That hurts, because you don't get many opportunities like that," Jones said candidly, "and the one I did get, I messed up." -- he and his fellow receivers give Kill faith that the Gophers have more than enough talent to compete.

"The ability is there," he said of his wide receivers. "Sometimes you have to learn tough lessons. We've made a few mistakes. But I'd say we're a lot farther along than we were a year ago."

And that's without their two most anticipated receivers, freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison, who have been sidelined by injuries and inexperience. Harbison is out for the season after knee surgery, and McDonald is trying to work his way back into the lineup after a health scare that caused him to miss more than a week of practices.

But the five receivers getting the most work all have caught passes in at least four games, and all have made significant contributions to Gophers victories. Minnesota averages 15.4 catches per game, only ninth in the Big Ten, but ranks fifth in passing yards -- meaning the Gophers are making good use of their weapons.

"What we're trying to create as a receiving corps is a bunch of guys who can" make big plays, Jones said. "Then you can really spread the field out. Then you've got an offense that's hard to defend."

Especially when they're fast. Crawford-Tufts was a state-record sprinter at Edina High School, and Jones was the Gophers' fastest player before his knee injury. And Fruechte, a Caledonia, Minn., native, might be the fastest of them all. "He's a low 4.5 guy" in the 40-yard dash, Kill said. "Sometimes it doesn't look like it, because right now he's thinking, processing what he's supposed to do."

Getting more comfortable all the time, though, said Fruechte, who sat out last season before transferring from Rochester Community and Technical College. And he's enjoying the Gophers' willingness to spread the ball around. "It's circumstances, it's how the defense is playing, who we can pick on the easiest," he said. "Like against Western Michigan, we attacked the middle of the field. A.J. was playing the slot, and he was killing it there, because they were weaker in the middle. You know if you get open, you're going to get the ball."

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