Questions abound at receiver as Gophers search for reliability, depth
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If you're looking for the one position group that is shouldering the most questions heading into the start of the Minnesota Gophers' preseason training camp on Friday, the easy answer lies at wide receiver.
In a unit where there are no clear-cut, go-to targets, the situation at receiver is a jumble of largely unproven options.
With junior receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts' decision on Monday to join the track and field team full time, the Gophers are returning only two receivers who recorded more than 121 yards last season -- Derrick Engel (375 yds) and Isaac Fruechte (256 yds).
While the coaching staff recognizes receiver is an area in desperate need for improvement, the concern level is not as high in-house as it was toward the tail end of the 2012 season.
Kill was not caught off-guard by Crawford-Tufts departure, which had been a building issue since the spring. Knowing that it was possible he would decide to leave, the Gophers made tweaks in spring practice and gave others in the group extra reps to guard against any shots to their depth.
"We prepared for those types of things," Kill said Tuesday at his preseason news conference. "I've got a good relationship with Devin. I'm the one said 'Hey, you can run track (in the spring),' so I knew that might happen and we prepared for it."
The Gophers are focused on establishing an identity as an offense founded on a grinding run game, with option reads and play action mixed in. As part of that, the Gophers' youthful crew of tight ends are expected to be featured much more prominently in the offense, which could take some of the burden off the receiving corps.
But the Gophers need to find at least three or four reliable targets on the outside to open up the offense, and enough depth to protect against injuries. The receiver unit is all too familiar with its stats and struggles last season. The time for an upgrade in production has to start now.
"It's kind of like playing in the NFL/NBA, it's our contract year type of thing," Fruechte said. "We have to get it done otherwise we're going to be replaced."
The depth chart is open for guys like Engel and Fruechte to have a major impact, and both will likely be critical features of any passing schemes the Gophers draw up. But finding the players to provide depth in the middle and on the backend of the depth chart is the main issue facing the group.
Slot receiver K.J. Maye and redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison, who is coming off an ACL tear, have crucial opportunities to play prominent roles. Incoming freshmen Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky will both have chances to play right away.
"Just getting (Carter and Wolitarsky) in there during captains practice and being able to watch them do some one on ones, they have a lot of talent," quarterback Philip Nelson said. "I'm really excited to see what they can do this camp."
After being recently reinstated after being suspended in December for "violation of team policy," sophomore Andre McDonald is the wild card of the group. McDonald, a physical and speedy 6-foot-2, 200-pound receiver, has the look of a Big Ten wide out, but the question is if he can keep the off-field issues in-check.
Although he was not officially on the team for most of the summer, he went through offseason workouts with his teammates. In the last couple of months, those teammates have noticed McDonald's development.
"I think he's relying on us more as a family," Fruechte said. "It was the first week that we got back and he was having a talk with (safety) Cedric Thompson in the locker room talking about, 'You just let me know if you need anything, because we're here for you.' He's changed and he's working hard. He's doing what he's supposed to be doing ... He's more willing to get help."
The Gophers are still trying to finalize their 105-man training camp roster, adjusting for a few lingering injuries.
• Center Brian Bobek, who is suffering from a viral infection that is affecting his heart, met with doctors again in the last few days and was not cleared for fall camp. This makes it likely that he will be on the camp roster come Aug. 2. After sitting out a year following his transfer from Ohio State, Bobek was projected to compete for the starting role at center. Now it's a question of whether or not he will see the playing field at all this season.
• Kill said offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig (knee) hasn't been given the official go-ahead yet, but in all likelihood he will be eased back into the O-line to start camp.
"If he joins roster probably won't start him full-tilt, probably keep him in individual drills so we don't get him tangled up," Kill said. "We've got to make a decision as a coaching staff and training staff what the best decision is for him. Right now we're leaning towards bringing him in."
• Defensive tackle Roland Johnson (ACL) has been cleared and is "ready to go."
• Cornerback Marcus Jones, who his coming off a knee injury for the second straight year, is healthy and will participate in camp. Jones was moved from cornerback to receiver in the offseason. The switch to defense protects him a little better from injury, but his chances at seeing much playing time are low given the depth the Gophers have in the secondary.
• Kill received a glowing report this season from his strength and conditioning coach, Eric Klein, who isn't one to be open with praise unless it's warranted.
"When Eric Klein tells me, 'This is the first time since I've been at the University of Minnesota that going into camp I feel like I'm getting you into a better position to have success,' Kill said. "He's pretty much told me that other places we've been. So if he says that we must be getting a little stronger, a little better athletically."
• Like the first two years under Kill, the Gophers won't name team captains until after the season. But Kill volunteered that senior linebacker Aaron Hill and redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Josh Campion have been the team's most prominent leaders.