Gophers football had not seen the wide receiver position produce NFL picks in back-to-back drafts until Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman rowed the boat into the league the last two years.

A program that had no drafted wideouts since Eric Decker in 2010 suddenly was turning into a wide receiver factory.

"We have a very high standard of how we go about our business," said Gophers co-offensive coordinator Matt Simon, who coaches the receivers. "We've been able to have guys who had success. It's a product that has kind of been proven and tested."

With that type of high standard comes pressure for players to follow in the footsteps of Bateman and Johnson.

Finding the U's next star pass-catcher and developing the new crop of receivers has been a difficult task for Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and Simon this year. Minnesota's passing game has gone from near-first to now last in the Big Ten since 2019.

Entering Saturday's game at Purdue, the Gophers (2-2) have their top receiver Chris Autman-Bell banged up. And a young and inexperienced corps behind him has struggled to help quarterback Tanner Morgan find his rhythm again.

Following Morgan's 59 yards passing in a disappointing 14-10 loss last week against Bowling Green, the Gophers dropped to 14th in the Big Ten with just 135 yards passing per game. Just as surprising is the absence of any U wideouts among the top 20 in the Big Ten in receiving yards through four games.

The Gophers had a top-10 receiver in either receptions or yards per game every season since the last production drought at the position from 2012-14. A youth movement threatens that streak this season at the U with 13 of the 16 receivers on the roster either freshmen or sophomores.

"They need to be mentally locked in and focused," Simon said earlier about his young receivers group. "That's extremely hard to do. But the word for us since training camp with our group was consistency. It's about us being consistent with not just the scheme and the X's and O's. But the fundamentals, the details, and the timing."

The Gophers took a hit at receiver when Autman-Bell went down with an ankle injury in fall camp, but it forced younger players into bigger roles immediately. The WR room's motto "Actions over Words" is still being preached and represented by A&W Root Beer cans sitting in their lockers.

"People can say we're young," Simon said. "People can say we're inexperienced. People can say we lost Rashad and Tyler the last two years. Who is going to step up? … The only way for us to change that and prove everyone wrong is our actions."

Early action came in the first two games. Minnesota's receivers accounted for 149 of Morgan's 205 passing yards against Ohio State. Redshirt sophomore Dylan Wright caught touchdown passes against the Buckeyes and Miami (Ohio), but he's also had – like his teammates – a few notable drops and mistakes.

Wright leads the Gophers with nine catches for 169 yards this season, but he had zero catches with limited playing time against Bowling Green. Sophomore Daniel Jackson, a former four-star recruit, played more than Wright in last week's loss. Autman-Bell, who was injured early and failed to return, and Jackson were the only receivers with receptions, finishing with just two catches for 34 yards combined.

The Gophers other co-offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford Jr., handles the play calling. But Fleck said there was "nothing particular" about Wright's diminished role against Bowling Green other than he wasn't part of the intended game plan.

A physically-gifted Texas A&M transfer, Wright has raw talent, but he's unable yet to be moved around to different receiving spots.

"How well can he handle it?" Fleck said recently. "How quickly does he address these things? How fast can he perform in these situations? I think this is where the consistency comes in."

Autman-Bell, who had 79 yards receiving in his season debut in the Sept. 18 win vs. Colorado, could be ready to play Saturday at Purdue.

Desperate for a bounce back win, the Gophers are trying to be patient with a developing receiving unit, but they could use a big performance like past years.

"I've got nothing but trust and faith in all my guys," Autman-Bell said last week. "We get talked about being the weakest position group or the weakest link in the offense or being a young and inexperienced group. But those guys are ready. I know they can step up and make any plays."