Drew Wolitarsky broke California’s all-time high school receiving record in 2012, but when he first came to the Gophers, he sometimes looked as if he’d forgotten how to catch the ball.
The coaches will point to that sometimes now, when their younger receivers drop passes, saying, “Hey, Drew missed some when he was a freshman, too, but look at him now.”
Yes, just look at Wolitarsky, a junior who set career highs in Saturday’s victory at Colorado State with nine receptions and 114 yards.
Wolitarsky, KJ Maye and Eric Carter are leading a receiving corps that is churning out better numbers with the Gophers throwing the ball more than they ever did previously under Jerry Kill.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner has set career highs for passes each of the past two weeks — 35 then 45. That’s 80 passes in two games.
“Too darn many for me,” Kill said.
But certainly not too many for the receivers.
Last year, tight end Maxx Williams led the Gophers with 36 receptions. No wide receiver had more than 18.
Maye, Wolitarsky and Carter combined for 27 receptions last year. This year, that trio already has 29.
“I feel like I’m just getting more included,” said Wolitarsky, who leads the team with 12 catches for 161 yards. “They have more trust in me. I’ve been able to do this. Now just the opportunities are coming my way.”
But Wolitarsky knows how much he’s developed, too.
He came to Minnesota from Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., where he made 281 catches for 5,148 yards, breaking the records set by Steve Smith, who went on to play for the Giants, Eagles and Rams.
Wolitarsky was a 6-3, 230-pound freshman for the Gophers, big enough to play right away, but not quick enough to separate himself from Big Ten defensive backs. He shed 15 pounds that offseason, trimming his body fat percentage from 12 to 8.
“The nutrition staff really helped me with that,” Wolitarsky said.
“I wasn’t aware of the stuff I was putting in my body, and the amount of calories.”
Wolitarsky was having a better season last year before severely spraining an ankle on a 35-yard reception at Illinois. He missed the final four regular-season games and was limited in the Citrus Bowl.
Now, he’s back at full speed, thriving at a new position. During training camp, the coaches shifted Wolitarsky from an outside receiver to slot receiver, where he can pose matchup problems for linebackers and safeties.
They did the same thing with Derrick Engle in 2013 and watched him blossom into a go-to target who had five touchdown receptions in a span of five games.
“I think it’s a good fit,” Wolitarsky said. “That’s what I played in high school, so I’m pretty comfortable with it.”
In 2013 at Michigan, Wolitarsky just missed a pass from Leidner in the end zone. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said, “Freshman Drew couldn’t quite get it done, but Junior Drew will.”
Fast forward to Saturday, when the Gophers stunningly passed more times (45) than they ran (41). Maye was targeted 14 times and made six catches, including a clutch 22-yard touchdown grab. Wolitarsky had nine targets, catching every ball thrown his way.
So, see Melvin Holland and Rashad Still: Even the sure-handed Wolitarsky had drops as a freshman. Look at him now.
“Yeah, I don’t want to bring those [freshman] memories back,” Wolitarsky said Tuesday. “But it’s true.”