Gophers fall camp Day 17: WR corps progressing, but still a question
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Wide receiver was already a major question mark for the Minnesota Gophers offense, but the receiver corps has taken a few hits recently that have only added to the speculation about the group's outlook.
The removal of troubled sophomore Andre McDonald from the 105-man fall camp roster last week was a blow to the Gophers simply because it left a vacancy in their receiver rotation, which has forced the rest of the crew to fill in the extra reps.
Reinstated with the team in the summer after being suspended in December for "violation of team policy," McDonald's speed and bulk had garnered a fair amount of hype in terms of what he could do with the second chance he had been given this season.
But while there was no doubting McDonald's potential, he was still a ways off from a dramatic change in his role three weeks into fall camp, shortly after he rejoined the active roster after being suspended in January.
From the moment coach Jerry Kill cleared McDonald, the coaching staff approached the young receiver's return with a dose of both optimism and caution. Knowing McDonald would have to be eased back in, the Gophers were already preparing other options.
In short, McDonald wasn't going to be a key go-to feature of the offense at the onset of the season.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover acknowledged the loss of a potentially solid piece in his rotation, but he exuded confidence in several others, including Derrick Engel, Isaac Fruechte and sophomore running back-turned-receiver K.J. Maye, to form a solid backbone in a receiver corps trying to establish an identity.
"To be honest with you, Andre had a lot of work he needed to do to really be a force for us," Limegrover said. "He would have had that opportunity had he been able to stick around."
"But we're really getting comfortable with five or six guys ... I think we're going to be healthy and we're going to have a pretty good group. Those guys are really starting to feel it."
Kill hasn't shut out the possibility of McDonald being brought back again. The former Hopkins high school star remains on the team and is eligible to return when the "U" roster expands after next Thursday's season opener against UNLV. Kill said he would reevaluate the situation at that point.
Meanwhile, injuries have created another layer of lingering concern at receiver. Engel has missed practice time for the last week due to a groin injury. After sitting out on Monday, Engel was allowed to do individual drills only on Tuesday.
Engel's injury is being monitored closely, but there is not much mounting concern among the players and coaches that it will be a problem when kickoff against UNLV rolls around.
Freshman Drew Wolitarsky returned to practice Monday after being sidelined by a tight hamstring. Kill said Wolitarsky has been limited in what he's allowed to do. The true freshman still has an opportunity to break into the rotation this season, but Kill said he has "a lot to catch up with" before that happens.
Redshirt senior Victor Keise has been slowed by a hand injury, which he has been wearing a protective brace over. Kill said Keise went to see a specialist, but has been given no clear answer whether or not he will be cleared to play next Thursday.
Keise, who had one catch in his first three seasons, has been far off the radar of program onlookers, but he had been gaining mention for his performance in camp from Limegrover and Kill.
A recent positive for the receivers is the development of redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison, who is coming off an ACL injury he suffered in the first game of the 2012 season. Harbison had a slow start to camp, but seems to be gaining momentum as the season draws nearer.
"Jamel has really stepped up and really played well," Fruechte said "He's looked really good. It seems like every day he's up on (our team bulletin board) for having big blocks or big catches. He looks like he feels very comfortable with his knee."
• The final determination of who the Gophers' return man will be on punts and kickoffs has yet to be solidified, but Kill made it clear that junior Marcus Jones will be a member of the return team in some capacity.
"It brings a great deal of worth. That's what he does well, with some other things," Kill said. "He will definitely be a guy who will be involved in our return game. You always go back to trust-factor. Marcus has done it in a game, so I can tell he'll be a part of the mix. Anybody else after that I can't tell you.
Jones has returned 17 kicks for an average of 26.2 yards (445 total yards) in the course of his first two seasons.
A pair of ACL surgeries have hindered Jones' career, leading partially to the idea of moving him from receiver to cornerback in order to reduce the risk of injury. But when asked if he had any hesitation of using Jones on kick returns, Kill adamantly responded, "Zero."
• Limegrover said a decision on the offensive line starting-five will be made on Friday before full preparations for UNLV begin on Saturday. Position battles, like the ones at left tackle and center, are still being sorted out, per Limegrover.