Breaking down the Gophers WRs: Search is on for a go-to threat
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Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 1, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position-by-position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
On the roster
• Brandon Green -- RS Senior, 6-foot-0, 190 pounds, Chicago, Ill.
• Malcolm Moulton -- Junior, 5-11, 185, Lawrenceville, Ga.
• Devin Crawford-Tufts -- Sophomore, 6-2, 195, Edina, Minn.
• Marcus Jones -- Sophomore, 5-8, 170, Wake Forest, N.C.
• Andre McDonald -- Freshman, 6-2, 200, Minnetonka, Minn.
• Jamel Harbison -- Freshman , 5-11, 195, Charlotte, N.C.
• Isaac Fruechte - Sophomore (juco), 6-3, 205, Caledonia, Minn.
• Victor Keise -- RS Junior, 6-1, 180, Coral Springs, Fla.
• A.J. Barker -- RS Junior, 6-1, 197, St. Paul, Minn.
• Derrick Engel -- RS Junior, 6-2, Chaska, Minn.
• C.J. Cesario -- RS Sophomore, 5-10, Arlington Heights, Ill.
• Cameron Wilson -- RS Sophomore, 6-3, 210, Rockwall, Texas
• Logan Hutton -- RS Sophomore, 6-1, 180, La Marque, Texas
• Matt Kloss -- Senior, 6-0, 200, Coon Rapids, Minn.
• Da'Jon McKnight -- Led the Gophers in receiving yards in 2011 with 760, finishing his career ranked seventh on the "U" all-time list (1,859). His 15 career receiving touchdowns, four of which came last season, put him in a tie for fifth-most in Gophers history.
By far the rawest and most inexperienced aspect of the Gophers offense in 2011 -- at times painfully so -- the receiver corps remains youthful, but possesses more upside than it did when coach Jerry Kill took over last season.
Receivers coach Pat Poore was handed a group that, apart from McKnight and Green, had nearly zero Big Ten experience. Add to that mix a freshly minted quarterback (MarQueis Gray) and the results, as could be expected, were slow to come.
The season was wrought with dropped passes and botched routes. Only Ohio State turned out worse passing numbers in the Big Ten than the Gophers, who ranked 109th out of 120 teams in the NCAA with an average of 150.3 yards per game (1,804 total). With McKnight shouldering more than half the group's production, the "U" wide receivers accounted for 1,450 of the Gophers 1,804 passing yards.
A year later, the situation at receiver is still a massive work-in-progress. In the wake of McKnight's departure, the Gophers are left with four returning players who recorded at least a catch last season: Green (190 yards), Moulton (174), Crawford-Tufts (156) and Jones (142).
Despite the limited returning numbers, the "U" has gained a sense of grounded optimism about the year ahead, mainly as a result of the development of Moulton, Crawford-Tufts and Jones. All three players made their Division I debuts in 2011. It also helps that 11 of the 14 receivers on the roster have had a year to learn the offensive system deployed by coordinator Matt Limegrover.
During spring practice, the unit as a whole looked more in-tune with each other and composed -- though not without its share of mistakes -- running sharper, tighter routes and hauling in an increased number of deep passes.
The improvements spurred Kill to mention several times he was thoroughly impressed by the sudden growth at receiver. Limegrover, too, was pleased by the group's evolution, claiming that it could be the most improved area on the offense this season. That claim, however, will require a substantial step forward from the bulk of the team's receivers, especially Green, Moulton, Crawford-Tufts and Jones.
While the Gophers used numerous combinations at receiver last season, there is a desire within the coaching staff to find an established core of three or four players Gray can rely on to produce on a consistent basis.
"That's not the only the thing we have to do to take the next step, but that's part of the equation," Limegrover said during an interview with 1500ESPN.com in June. "Our kids work hard ... but there still needs to be that group of guys that really separate themselves and allows the whole offense to be working off each other, route-wise. ... I think that's what allows your offense to really take that next step from going from kind of getting by and making a play here and there to being consistent."
Green stands as the Gophers' lone regular senior receiver. (Matt Kloss, who has not played since transferring in 2010, is also a senior.) With that distinction, Green carries an expectation and yearning to bookend his trying collegiate career with a season of clarity.
A four-star recruit out of Robeson High School in Chicago, Green's first two years on campus were stamped with growing promise. He racked up 306 yards (21 receptions, one TD) in 2008 and 293 yards (21 catches, one TD) in 2009. But a major knee injury early in his junior campaign halted that upward trajectory. Granted a medical redshirt, he progressed soundly through rehab to return to play in all 12 games last season, totaling 15 receptions for 190 yards and one touchdown. However, Green was not the same player. Gone was his ability to beat a defender on speed alone and his range of motion was limited.
"I feel bad for Brandon," said Limegrover, who recalls scouting Green while working under Kill at Northern Illinois. "He was a phenomenal high school player. The injuries have taken some of that away from him. That's frustrating. It's frustrating for anybody, any player who has that ability and their body just won't let them do what they know in their mind and have that mental picture of what they've done in the past."
Green has slowly adapted to his post-injury form. In conversations with the senior receiver and from watching him in the spring, Green has shown he is equipped with a better understanding of what he can and can't do. While he may not have reached the standout status that was once thought possible, Green is still a threat to defenses with his solid field vision and ability to detect a defender's shortcomings. He also benefits from a close friendship with Gray, his roommate the past two years -- the two have an on-field connection spawned from a rooted knowledge of each others tendencies. With a short list of quality, experienced options, the Gophers need a consistent output from Green to bolster their fledgling offense.
Moulton is another key to giving the Gophers a sounder presence in the passing game. Junior college transfers can be a gamble, but the Gophers got what they wanted from Moulton after signing him in the summer prior to the 2011 season. Used both at receiver and as a kick returner, Moulton showed off his speed and craft in all 12 games, highlighted by a 59-yard reception against Miami (Ohio).
Without McKnight, the Gophers are lacking a big-time receiver that can out-leap a defender and haul in a high pass. Crawford-Tufts is striving to be that guy. He has shown he has the potential, braving the harsh adjustments typical of a freshman season to pick up 174 yards off eight receptions after being inserted into the rotation in Week 5 against Michigan. He is starting to look the part as he continues to grow into his lanky 6-foot-2 frame, bulking up to 195 pounds -- around a 10-pound increase. The added weight hasn't reduced his burst off the line as he outran several defenders during the spring. Crawford-Tufts likely is still a year away from being a true standout, but he is progressing at a promising rate.
Like Crawford-Tufts, Jones made a significant impact as a freshman. Emerging slightly under the radar, Jones totaled 142 receiving yards and ran back a kick 92 yards for a touchdown against Purdue in the first seven games of the season. An ACL tear suffered on a kick return during practice on Oct. 26, however, brought his breakout year to an unceremonious close.
The recovery process that typically takes four to six months didn't deter Jones --a driven, superbly athletic specimen. By winter break -- two months removed from surgery -- Jones was already attempting to run and by the spring he was able to cut and break on the knee. Though he was limited to only various drills in the spring, Jones' remarkably quick recovery left Limegrover to say he would have likely started if the Gophers had a game of note in April. It is still to be determined if the surgically repaired knee will hinder his dynamic in-game capabilities, but the Gophers are confident he can be the high-impact receiver he appeared to be prior to the injury. Jones adds a wrinkle to the offense as he boasts a fearlessness to make catches up the middle of the field -- a spot he was used frequently in last season.
The Gophers were in obvious need of more long-term depth at receiver and attempted to satisfy it with their incoming recruiting class, landing a pair of upper tier freshmen. McDonald, who chose the "U" over UCLA, joins the Gophers as one of the top prospects from the state of Minnesota. The former Hopkins high school star has the confidence, as well as the size and speed -- 6-foot-2, 200-pounds -- to be a quality Big Ten receiver, though how he adapts to upgraded competition has yet to be seen. The possibility of taking a redshirt this season is there, but it is more likely McDonald will be integrated into a backup role early on. Harbison is in a similar position as McDonald, entering the fall as a four-star recruit from North Carolina. Armed with an acute ability to play inside or on the outside, Harbison is capable of playing right away if need be. Fruechte, a sizable junior college transfer from Rochester Community and Technical College, was recruited as another way to strengthen the offense's weakest position and will make a bid for playing time from the get-go.
From there, the rest of the receiving corps is made up mainly of role players. Keise was a relative non-factor in his first two seasons, but he will have another opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation. Barker and Cesario, both quality practice players, each had a strong spring, coming up with a couple notable receptions during scrimmages. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer regulations, Engel, who left Winona State to join the Gophers in 2011, is eligible to play. Redshirt sophomores Wilson and Hutton, as well as Kloss, round out the backend of a group that will be in a tight competition for limited playing time, if any, left to go around.
Matt Limegrover's take on ... Brandon Green
"I think one of the things Brandon has done a great job at is that he's molded himself over the last 4½ years from being a kid with great physical skills, who could go out there and beat you just because he was a great athlete, to being more of a cerebral player. ... So, he can make up for some of the physical things that hold him back, because he is a guy that MarQueis knows. He's going to be where he's supposed to be and that is a great security blanket for a quarterback to have a veteran guy like that."
The Gophers' passing game must improve drastically if the team has any hopes of jumpstarting a sputtering offense. That relies heavily on the improvement and output of Green, Crawford-Tufts, Moulton and Jones. Their success is obviously interconnected with Gray's and could take considerable pressure off the senior quarterback if they perform up to standard. If those four can be established as viable threats early on, with one possibly emerging as Gray's go-to guy, it will open the Gophers to interspersing other options at receiver. Green has the tools and connection with Gray to produce a high number of receptions, but it's tough to believe that will take shape until he strings several quality games together. The more likely scenario is no receiver will separate himself from the pack this season, spreading the reception numbers throughout the group. The Gophers can't be expected to make the leap into the upper half of the Big Ten's receiving rankings in the year ahead. However, Crawford-Tufts and Jones, as well newcomers McDonald and Harbison, are part of the groundwork Kill is trying to cultivate in an attempt to allow the "U" to compete with the conference's best in the years ahead.