Notebook: Finding playmakers at receiver 'critical' for Gophers
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- Only 11 NCAA Division I FBS teams had a worse passing attack last season than the Gophers.
"U" quarterback MarQueis Gray had his share of struggles in his first year under center, particularly with finding an open target downfield. But the issues were made worse by a group of receivers riddled with inexperience and lacking reliable options. The wide receiver corps accounted for 1,451 of the Gophers' lowly 1804 total receiving yards -- a number skewed by now-graduated Da'Jon McKnight's 760 yards.
Coach Jerry Kill knows those numbers must change for Gray and the Gophers offense to have any chance to stay relevant in the year ahead.
"We need some guys that are going to be dynamic playmakers to go up and get a ball and go make a play," Kill said Thursday at the Gophers' fall camp news conference after he labeled wide receiver as a "critical position" for the team this season.
The call is out. Now Kill has to wait through the next four weeks of camp to see who gets the message.
The Gophers aren't without a spattering of intriguing options. Sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts has garnered a large share of the pre-season hype. Impressive in glimpses during his freshman year, Crawford-Tufts is geared up to be a reliable vertical threat -- a role held last season by McKnight.
"I know Devin Tufts is going to have a good year," Kill said. "I feel that coming on the way he's worked. He got better at the end of the year, made some great plays, but we need more than just Devin."
Playing time will be up for grabs, with senior Brandon Green, junior Malcolm Moulton and sophomore Marcus Jones contending for top billing alongside Crawford-Tufts. And like Jones and Crawford-Tufts a year ago, the Gophers will be relying on a pair incoming freshmen for additional help. Enrolled in June, Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald have caught the attention of their teammates and coaches alike.
"Andre and Jamel are great assets to the receiving corps. They are definitely going to help us out," Jones said.
Both have a shot a seeing the field in a large capacity in their first year on campus, though the possibility of either one taking a redshirt has not been ruled out.
Jones 'back to normal'
Nine months removed from surgery to repair an ACL tear, Jones says he has felt "back to normal" since late-May.
Six games into last season, Jones bounded into the endzone after a 92-yard kick return at Purdue on Oct. 8 -- the latest highlight in the young receiver's eye-catching start to the year.
Two weeks later his season was over after catching his knee on the turf in practice.
Jones didn't stay sidelined for long as he sped through his recovery and was able to participate in limited drills by spring practice, only five months after undergoing surgery in November.
Jones, who had nine catches for 142 yards prior the injury, said he has had no setbacks this summer, allowing him full clearance for team workouts. That is good news for the Gophers, who are banking on Jones to give them a speedy downfield weapon.
But Jones' role on special teams is still up in the air. He said he has not been approached yet by the coaching staff about possibly regaining his kick return duties. He admits that if he does transition back into the mix on kick returns it will be slowly as the Gophers are trying to ensure his knee can hold up. Cornerback Troy Stoduermire is the likely candidate for the return team's No. 1 spot.
Vereen bulks up
When the Gophers opted to move junior Brock Vereen from cornerback to safety in the off-season, it was obvious he would need an added layer of bulk to handle the more physical rigors. Vereen followed through, upping his weight 24 pounds from last season to 205 -- a bit of surprise to even himself.
"Yeah, I don't know how it happened, but it did," Vereen said with a laugh. "I've got to be bigger in the box to make more tackles, so I'm excited."
While still undersized for a safety, Vereen is considerably more toned than he was prior, which should help bolster his speed.
Vereen -- a starter in all 12 games at cornerback in 2011 -- has some ground to make up in fall camp as he continues to adjust to his new position. Vereen had minor knee surgery, which kept him from being medically cleared in the spring. Sitting out practice was difficult for the junior safety, but the coaching staff was adamant that Vereen could settle in quickly once healthy.
"You never want to get hurt, but the timing of that couldn't have been worse," Vereen said. "But coach Kill and also (defensive backs) coach (Jay) Sawvell did a great job of keeping me in-tune mentally and taking mental reps. Coach Kill did a good job of explaining to me that you can be just as involved without actually being out there."
Vereen, now fully healthy, will vie for a starting role with sophomore frontrunners Derrick Wells and Cedric Thompson.
• Friday was the official start date of the Gophers' fall camp, though practice does not begin until Saturday at 10:25 a.m.. Following check-in, the players spend the time leading up to the first practice attending various team meetings and going over NCAA compliance rules.
• Injuries forced the Gophers to leave linebacker Quinn Bauducco (back) and freshman Duke Anyanwu (knee) off the 105-man camp roster. Bauducco was sidelined throughout spring practice after undergoing back surgery. The pain in his back flared up again in the summer, preventing the redshirt freshman from participating in workouts.
Offensive lineman Sean Ferguson, redshirt freshman quarterback Dexter Foreman and senior defensive linemen Curran Delaney and Austin Hahn were also absent from the roster.
• Captains for this season, Kill said, will not be named until the year-end banquet. The team recently appointed a council group made up of both upper and lowerclassmen, who will vote at the end of the season to select four players as team captains. The Gophers did not officially name captains in Kill's first season.