Wolitarsky takes a hands-on approach by necessity as Gophers receiver

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 28, 2013 - 11:42 PM

Drew Wolitarsky will be one of several Gophers receivers asked to step up to replace injured Derrick Engel.

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Gophers freshman Drew Wolitarsky, seen here in a scrimmage, holds California prep records for catches and yards.

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A few months after rewriting California’s high school record book last fall, Gophers receiver Drew Wolitarsky sat down and wrote something else — his first novel.

Wolitarsky picked a World War II theme and churned out about 50 pages just before graduating from Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. Someday he hopes to have it published.

He is a freshman English major at the university now, and he loves history, too. When he is not reading or writing, he is busy honing his craft as a wide receiver, playing an increasingly important role within the Gophers offense.

The Gophers hoped Wolitarsky and fellow freshman Donovahn Jones would develop quickly this season. Those projects took on added urgency last week, when senior receiver Derrick Engel suffered a season-ending knee injury.

“He’s one of our best receivers,” Wolitarsky said of Engel. “The rest of us understand that we have to make plays now, and it’s kind of on us.”

On Saturday, the Gophers will need big performances from their receivers if they hope to upset No. 11 Michigan State, which boasts two of the conference’s top cornerbacks in Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes.

“Donovahn and Drew are going to be special players, and I think they’ll do it sooner rather than later,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said, noting that Wolitarsky already looks the part at 6-3 and 227 pounds. “That strength and size is what you want in the Big Ten, and Donovahn Jones is probably 6-3, 205.

“Donovahn’s learning how to play the position because he played quarterback [in high school], and Drew’s a little further along with knowledge of the game. But they’re both very talented.”

Wolitarsky was a four-year starter in high school. He caught 281 passes for 5,148 yards, breaking the California records held by Steve Smith, who is now in his 13th season with the Carolina Panthers.

Smith had 271 catches for 4,486 yards at University High School in Los Angeles, and surpassing those numbers still leaves Wolitarsky in disbelief.

“I’m going to be honest with you; I don’t feel like I’m the leader of the state,” he said. “It still hasn’t sunk in. I know I’m the leader, but I don’t think of myself as being the best or anything.”

Wolitarsky had scholarship offers from San Jose State and Arizona, along with Minnesota. Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel, one of the team’s top recruiters, made quite a sales pitch on his visit to Wolitarsky’s high school.

“I think I’d seen Minnesota play like twice in my life because I remember their uniforms looked like USC’s,” Wolitarsky said. “But I didn’t even know which conference they were in.

“So I looked it up on my phone and found out they were in the Big Ten, and they played Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State — all these big teams.

“So I looked into it more, looked at the school, looked at the campus and it looked really awesome. I came out here on a visit, and I loved it.”

Wolitarsky still loves it, he insists, even after playing Wisconsin last Saturday with a windchill of 5 degrees.

“I have adjusted, and especially after Saturday; everything now seems warm,” Wolitarsky said. “I have some Canadian blood in me. My mom was born in Montreal, so I’m a little bit used to it, I guess.”

For the season, Wolitarsky has a modest eight catches for 109 yards, but he has been targeted as much as any receiver on the team aside from Engel. The Wisconsin game was a struggle, as quarterback Philip Nelson directed four passes to Wolitarsky without a completion. None of the plays was easy, but three of the balls were catchable.

On Oct. 5 at Michigan, Wolitarsky just missed a pass from Mitch Leidner in the end zone, leading offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover to remark: “I thought Drew was going to come down with it. Freshman Drew couldn’t quite get it done, but Junior Drew will.”

Wolitarsky runs crisp routes and already has a knack for getting open. In time, he will learn to position himself better to make catches. Kill notes that former Gophers receiver Eric Decker and Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis had to learn the same things.

“It’s tough to get so close and see [the pass] end up on the ground,” Wolitarsky said. “But I’ll keep getting better with the vision training and everything we have.

“[The ability’s] there, but you’ve got to finish.”

Sort of like a good book. The last page makes all the difference.

  • Gophers at No. 11 Michigan State 11 a.m. Saturday • Spartan Stadium • TV: Big Ten Network (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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