Gophers receiving corps gets an overhaul

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN
  • Updated: August 6, 2014 - 12:10 PM

Coach Jerry Kill has tried hard to upgrade his offense in the pass-catching department.

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.”

  • related content

  • Gophers' Wells excited about senior season

    Wednesday August 6, 2014

    A shoulder injury limited Gophers cornerback Derrick Wells last season, and he missed spring practice after having surgery. But Wells is back to full strength, running with the first-team defense...

  • U linebacker Campbell bulks up, says he'll stop being timid

    Tuesday August 5, 2014

    The junior linebacker said he was timid at 220 pounds last year, but he looks forward to facing Big Ten competition at his new weight.

  • Video: U cornerback Derrick Wells has high expectations

    Wednesday August 6, 2014

    Gophers senior cornerback Derrick Wells talks about his expectations for the defense this year.

  • Video: Gophers linebacker Campbell gets heavier

    Wednesday August 6, 2014

    Gophers linebacker De'Vondre Campbell talks about increasing his weight to 240 pounds to better prepare him for Big Ten...

  • Sophomore Drew Wolitarsky caught 15 passes last season, the most among returning Gophers wide receivers. He averaged 17.3 yards a catch with one touchdown.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 8 FINAL
Pittsburgh - LP: E. Volquez 0
Minnesota 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Seattle 10/6/14 7:30 PM
Washington 1 FINAL
Buffalo 6
Carolina 3 FINAL
Columbus 6
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL
Detroit 0
Montreal 3 FINAL
Chicago 1
Arizona 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Fla Atlantic 6:00 PM
UCF 6:00 PM
Arizona 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton 10/10/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa 10/11/14 9:00 PM
Brt Columbia





question of the day

Poll: How will the Vikings do Thursday in Green Bay?

Weekly Question


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters