Gophers spring position breakdown: Wide receivers and tight ends
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The following is the second in a series of position-by-position spring practice recaps, breaking down where the Gophers currently stand in each area with the final stretch of the offseason having just begun.
The Gophers entered the 2012 season with question marks at nearly every position. While they have since seen legitimate forward progress in several areas, especially throughout the secondary, others are still lacking definite signs of development towards a cohesive identity. And after the conclusion of the Gophers' third spring under coach Jerry Kill, the wide receiving corps remains a major concern on offense.
In a surprisingly quick rise and fall from grace, A.J. Barker emerged in the first half of last season as the Gophers' primary downfield threat (30 catches, 577 yards, 7 touchdowns) only to ungracefully quit the team one game before the end of the season. Whether or not the Gophers are better off in the long run without Barker, they suffered in the short term in his absence. Barker was sidelined with an ankle sprain in the three games prior to his brash and well-publicized departure. Finding another go-to target with Barker out was a struggle that wasn't remedied until December. In the final four games of the regular season, the Gophers broke 100 yards receiving only once and did not score a touchdown through the air. Barker still ended up being the Gophers' receiving leader by the end of the year by just over 200 yards - Derrick Engel finished second with 375 yards - even though he played in five less games.
It was a youthful group desperately trying to gel around a freshman quarterback, who inherited the offense midway through the season. Philip Nelson had obvious flaws in his seven games under center, but the lack of reliable downfield options didn't do much to ease his transition.
However, the Gophers' showing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl as a whole proved to be their most consistent and efficient overall performance of the Kill era. As a byproduct, it propelled Engel to the front of the receiver pack. Crawford-Tufts picked up his first career touchdown on a 17-yard play, but Engel stole the spotlight by bringing in four passes from Nelson for a game-high 108 yards. As a result, Engel, who finished with 375 yards in his first active season after transferring from Winona state in 2011, has become a key figure on offense. With the physicality to go with a solid vertical leap, the redshirt senior progressed strongly through the spring as the Gophers' top receiver. Engel may not finish next season as the Gophers' leading receiver, but for now his spot at top of the depth chart is sound.
"Derrick Engel knows he has a role now," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "It isn't an up in the air thing. He knows he's a part of this."
The situation gets interesting when sorting through the options after Engel. Redshirt junior Isaac Fruechte, a decent threat to reel in passes at or near the sidelines, can expect to see a high number of snaps again in the season ahead. The bulk of Fruechte's reps in the spring came with Nelson and the first team offense.
Crawford-Tufts showed promise in his freshman season, but last year was a letdown. Injury struggles, especially with a nagging hamstring that has bothered him since high school, slowed him down as they did in 2011. Crawford-Tufts' 189 total yards - fourth-most on the team - were only 33 more than he had as a freshman with twice as many receptions (16). However, it wasn't only injuries that derailed him. He often lacked aggression on plays and labored to create opening to make a play. The Gophers need Crawford-Tufts' to overcome the sophomore slump as they could greatly benefit from having his speed in their receiver rotation. But keeping him healthy is a crucial factor. Crawford-Tufts sat out the final week of the spring with an ankle injury. Even after a disappointing Crawford-Tufts' disappointing second year campaign, Kill hasn't backed down from his stance that the junior receiver can have an impact in the passing game, with the expected caveat.
"If all things were equal we would have liked to have redshirted him (in 2011), but we couldn't when we got here," Kill said. "But I look for him to have a breakout year next year if he can stay healthy."
One of the key unknowns at receiver is how good can Jamel Harbison be? After winning over the coaching staff in fall camp as a freshman, Harbison went into the Gophers' first game of the season with the opportunity to move into the go-receiver role. A misstep in the first half of the season opener at UNLV resulted in an ACL injury that led to him having take a redshirt. Seven months removed from surgery, Harbison was a surprise in the spring with how much he was able to do on a knee that didn't seem to be hinder his burst off the line or his downfield movements. Close to 200-pounds, the 5-foot-11 receiver is the best option the Gophers have from a pure athleticism standpoint. How well and how quickly he makes the adjustment to collegiate level competition will determine where he fits into the mix.
Although he started making the transition from running back midway through his freshman season, K.J. Maye is now a full-time receiver. The shifty 5-foot-10 speedster was one of the standouts of the spring and is projected to be used as the Gophers' primary slot receiver, with a secondary role in the return game.
"There are things that K.J. Maye can do that really nobody else in our receiver corps can do," Limegrover said. "So now it's just a matter of letting him learn how he needs to use his body and do those things as a wide receiver. You just see making improvements everyday."
Redshirt sophomore Logan Hutton and Victor Keise, both of whom have not played or rarely seen the field, worked through a quality number of reps in the spring. But their spots on the backend of the rotation are very much in flux with it yet to be seen what the Gophers opt to do with incoming freshmen Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky. Running back-turned-receiver Devon Wright got lost in the fray this spring after he was shutdown early on due to surgery on a bothersome shoulder. Kill expects Wright to be ready by the start of fall camp. Where he fits in early in the year depends on if he can make an impact quickly when training camp begins.
There's also the question of troubled receiver Andre McDonald's status. McDonald, who came to the Gophers as a well-regarded recruit, was left off the team's spring and did not enroll at University of Minnesota because of "personal reasons." After putting up 121 yards off 10 catches in games, McDonald was prohibited from playing in the Gophers' bowl loss to Texas Tech due to a "violation of team policy." Kill has kept the possibility of McDonald's return open, hoping to have him back for fall camp, but the situation is complex and could remain fluid for a while.
Projected top-5 receivers after spring practice (Not including incoming recruits)
1. Derrick Engel (RS senior, 6-foot-2, 187 lbs.)
2. Jamel Harbison (RS freshman, 5-11, 199)
3. Isaac Fruechte (RS junior, 6-3, 204)
4. K.J. Maye (Sophomore, 5-10, 197)
5. Devin Crawford-Tufts (Junior, 6-2, 193)
1. Eric Carter (5-11, 185, Lakeland, Fla.)
2. Drew Wolitarsky (6-3, 208, Santa Clarita, Calif.)
In offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover's offense, tight ends can have a critical impact, specifically in scoring situations. Seven of the Gophers' 19 receiving touchdowns last season were credited to tight ends John Rabe (4) and Drew Goodger (3). Rabe was an unsung figure in the "U" offense in the 2011 and 2012. His departure leaves an opening both scoring-wise and in the blocking game, but the Gophers have enough options to reasonably fill the void.
Having played in 22 games in the last two seasons, including 12 in 2012, Goodger was a worthy complement to Rabe year ago. He recorded 115 yards off 13 receptions in his second season. With the spring as a measurement, Goodger has used his solid rapport with Nelson to ease into the unit's top slot.
Sophomore Lincoln Plsek, who the Gophers' chose to pull a redshirt off of midway through his first year on campus, has the experience to make him capable of becoming a significant role player on offense. In his first season, he was used largely as back-up, the third tight end in three tight end sets, and an occasional receiving target (three catches, 22 yards). Plsek can now slide up in priority in similar fashion to how Goodger progressed in his second year.
Redshirt freshman Maxx Williams is a name to keep in mind at tight end. The subject of a fair amount of hype among the coaching staff during his stint on the scout team last season, Williams garnered even more praise with a hard-nosed effort this spring. Up nearly 20 pounds from where he was a year ago, the 6-foot-4, 254-pound Williams has the heightened agility to go with his sizeable body frame. This makes him a dangerous option in the passing game without leaving him as a liability blocking-wise.
"You're never going to have to get on him about hustling or finishing a play or playing hard," He's going to do that. And he's going to play for us because of that right there.
The Gophers aren't short on bodies at tight end, with nine on their spring roster and another, incoming freshman Nate Wozniak, set to arrive in the summer. Redshirt junior Alex Bisch might have to battle Williams for playing time. Bisch has the benefit of experience, playing in eight games last year. Redshirt freshman Duke Anyanwu joined the tight ends group after sitting out last year with a knee injury. But Anyanwu's adjustment to the position was stalled temporarily when he broke his wrist in the final weeks of spring.
Projected top-4 tight ends after spring practice (Not including incoming recruits)
1. Drew Goodger (Junior, 6-foot-5, 265 lbs.)
2. Lincoln Plsek (Sophomore, 6-4, 265)
3. Maxx Williams (RS freshman, 6-4
4. Alex Bisch (RS junior, 6-6, 251)
1. Nate Wozniak (6-9, 258, Greenwood, Ind.)