Sandell: Without Barker, Gophers in need of playmakers at receiver
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers could be without their top wide receiver, junior A.J. Barker, for a second straight week.
Barker's injured right ankle, which he has dealt with since a Purdue defender tackled him awkwardly in the endzone two weeks ago, has proved to be a longer lasting problem than at first thought.
Coach Jerry Kill, not usually one to rule out a player until game time draws closer, was blunt in admitting the Gophers better start planning to have Barker's routes covered by someone else when they travel to Illinois on Saturday.
"A.J. is the biggest concern (injury-wise)," Kill said "Unless a miracle takes place, so to speak, I don't look for him to be able to play on Saturday."
That is bad news for the Gophers and their offense, which floundered at times in Barker's absence in a 35-13 loss to Michigan last weekend.
Very few, if any, would have predicted at the onset of the season that having Barker sidelined nine games into the year would be considered a major detriment to the offense. However, Barker has developed into the Gophers' key playmaker on offense. When they have needed a receiver to make a catch on a pass deep downfield or near the sidelines, Barker has usually been on the other end.
The walk-on sparsely garnered any attention in his first two collegiate seasons, which were shadowed by injury woes. Barker produced only one catch in that two-year stretch, appearing in six games.
His college career has undergone a dramatic shift. He has risen to the top-tier status for the Gophers thanks to the third highest receiving yards per game average in the Big Ten (72.1 ypg). Barker's 577 total yards are more than double those of the next two receivers on the team's stat sheet -- junior Derrick Engel (215) and sophomore Isaac Fruechte (212). The drop-off continues from there, with sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts currently sitting fourth with 11 catches for 137 yards.
Without Barker part of the equation against Michigan, the Gophers struggled immensely to locate a suitable replacement in critical big-yardage situations.
Though the Gophers scattered a few catches for notable gains, freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and his receivers were hard-press to complete an array of deep passes that could have potentially changed the game's direction.
Michigan, behind the nation's No. 1 ranked pass defense, relentlessly keyed in on the Gophers' passing lanes throughout the game. Nelson completed 13 of 29 passes for 142 yards - the lowest total the Gophers have posted this season. The Wolverines deserve credit for their protection on corner routes and their press coverage off the line of scrimmage, but the "U" had its openings to break through. Nelson had seven passes of 15 yards or more that fell incomplete. While Michigan's secondary was a hindrance on some of those, missed routes, mistimed passes and a simple failure to make a play caused much of their problems. The Gophers had to settle for multiple short passes on the edges and up the middle of the field that ultimately didn't get the results they needed.
"We knew as a unit we needed to step up in that game and we were going to miss (Barker's production)," said Engel, whose 32-yard scamper off a quick pass from Nelson in the fourth quarter was the Gophers' only pass play longer than 14 yards.
"We had guys with a couple nice catches, but obviously we have to be more effective and make bigger plays downfield to be more successful, and we just couldn't do that on Saturday."
If Gophers hope to secure bowl eligibility against Illinois, in what on paper looks to be their best remaining chance to get that elusive sixth victory, a repeat of their spotty performance last weekend has to be avoided. And they will likely have to go about doing so with Barker on the sidelines, unless his recovery drastically speeds up in the next four days.
Senior MarQueis Gray is the most obvious candidate to take over as Nelson's go-to downfield threat, but his sprained left ankle has refused to fully heal, lessening his ability to make the dynamic leaping grabs onlookers came to expect when he was last at receiver. Nelson targeted Gray with the highest frequency against the Wolverines (seven attempts), with the receiver coming down with three of them for 27 yards.
Gray still poses the greatest danger to opposing defenses among the "U" receivers, apart from Barker. However, with his explosiveness and complete range of motion coming back slowly, the Gophers are need of production from elsewhere to lower the burden on Gray.
On Tuesday, Kill made it clear where he wants to see that production come from.
"We need to get Tufts and (Fruechte) going, and I think there's no question about that," Kill said.
Crawford-Tufts, bothered throughout the season by hamstring soreness, has posted a sparse 12 yards (three catches) in the Gophers' last five games, and is without a reception since Nelson took over at quarterback three weeks ago. Though Crawford-Tufts has played in all three of Nelson's starts, he was not targeted on any of the freshman quarterback's 75 total passing attempts.
Fruechte has the height - 6-foot-3 - and quickness to be a key receiver on slant routes and jump balls, but the Gophers are waiting for his consistency from play to play to level out. The connection between Nelson and Fruechte is in development. Behind Barker and Gray, Fruechte has been Nelson's most favored receiver. But the pair has connected only four times (26 yards) on 10 attempts in the last two games.
The answer to jump-starting the "U" pass offense likely doesn't rest on finding just one receiver to step in for Barker. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover is keen on rotating through personnel groupings, giving Nelson a number of options. The Gophers have had seven or more players record catches in six of their nine games.
The Gophers may be down two receivers Saturday. Kill also deemed Engel questionable after he tweaked his hamstring in the fourth quarter of the team's loss to Michigan. When asked about his status after practice Tuesday, Engel said he was "optimistic" he would be ready by the weekend.
With the health of Barker and Engel in question, getting Fruechte and Crawford-Tufts more involved in the offense is needed now more than at any point in the season. Gray's progress is also a major factor as he continues to be highly favored by Nelson.