From the outside looking in, it seems as if the hits keep coming for the Gophers receiving corps. A.J. Barker quits. Andre McDonald leaves school and misses spring practice. Then on Monday, the school announces Devin Crawford-Tufts is leaving the team to focus on track and field.
But with fall camp set to open Friday, the Gophers fully expect their receivers to improve this year. Some incoming freshmen and players on the rebound — including McDonald — should give this group a big lift.
“It’s almost like playing in the NFL or the NBA, and it’s your contract year,” junior receiver Isaac Fruechte said Tuesday at the team’s preseason news conference. “We’ve got to get it done; otherwise, we’re going to be replaced.”
Fruechte caught 19 passes for 256 yards last year. Senior Derrick Engel had 18 catches for 375 yards. Those are hardly gaudy numbers, but Fruechte and Engel are the team’s leading returnees.
Sophomore KJ Maye emerged as a go-to target during spring practice, and redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison was back at full speed after tearing up his knee in last season’s first game.
That group continued working with quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner through spring practice and in 7-on-7 drills throughout the summer.
“We’ve been really trying to get on the same page,” Nelson said. “They’ve all gotten bigger and stronger and faster, and I have a lot of confidence in them to be able to do their jobs.”
Crawford-Tufts lined up with the starting unit for much of spring practice after catching 16 passes for 189 yards last year. But by this summer, it was clear his heart was with the track team.
“I’ve got a good relationship with Devin,” coach Jerry Kill said. “I knew that might happen, so we’ve kind of prepared for it.”
McDonald’s re-emergence is as big as any development for the Gophers. The highly touted recruit from Hopkins caught only 10 passes for 121 yards last year and missed the bowl game because of a violation of team rules. He missed spring semester while dealing with a personal issue but is catching up with summer school.
“I think he’s definitely changed,” Fruechte said. “He’s working hard, and he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing, school-wise, everything. I think that’s because everybody around him is trying to help, but he’s more willing to get help.”
Beyond the returnees, four freshmen could see time at receiver, as well. The 6-3 Drew Wolitarsky set California receiving records at Canyon Country High School. The 5-11 Eric Carter caught 10 touchdown passes for a Lakeland (Fla.) High School team that went 10-0 during the regular season.
Donovahn Jones and Chris Streveler both were recruited as quarterbacks, but Kill has said both will get reps at receiver during camp. Jones recently showed off a 40-inch vertical jump. Streveler has grown from 205 pounds to about 218 since enrolling in January.
“I think we’re as good as anybody,” Fruechte said of the receiving corps. “I think we’re going to be kind of unknown and hopefully a shock to the Big Ten, where people go, ‘Shoot, we’ve got to guard these guys.’ ”
• Kill would prefer not to keep flipping quarterbacks, but with Nelson starting, the Gophers will be eager to get Leidner’s feet wet, too. “You don’t want your starter getting hit all the time,” Kill said. “So if there’s a chance that you can sprinkle somebody in there, that helps you later on down the road.”
• Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig (knee surgery) is the team’s biggest remaining question mark health-wise, Kill said. Pirsig might have to work some individual drills before he’ll be ready to go full speed.
• Two players coming off reconstructive knee surgery — defensive lineman Roland Johnson and linebacker Chris Wipson — have been cleared to practice Friday.
• The starting middle linebacker job remains a battle between freshman Jack Lynn and junior college transfer Damien Wilson. “I thought Damien and Jack Lynn were neck-and-neck for the spring,” Kill said.