For Gophers to get better, receivers must improve
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - College football coaches don't often give straight answers when asked to identify particular areas of concern - or strength - on their teams.
Minnesota's Jerry Kill hasn't hesitated to single out a position that could go the longest way toward an improved season for the Gophers.
"I think where we need to find some playmakers and see what they do is wide receiver,'' said Kill, who's entering his second year at Minnesota. "I think that's a critical position for us.''
The Gophers ranked next-to-last in the Big Ten last season with 150.3 yards passing per game, ahead of only Ohio State. Their top target of the last two years, Da'Jon McKnight, is gone. McKnight was seventh in the conference in both yards and receptions per game last season, and he was even better the year before that.
His departure has left a large group of intriguing and talented but unproven players to step in.
Freshmen Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald and junior college transfer Isaac Fruechte are challenging returners Devin Crawford-Tufts, Brandon Green, Victor Keise, Malcolm Moulton and Marcus Jones for spots.
Green is a fifth-year senior whose 306 yards receiving as a freshman in 2008 remain his career high. Crawford-Tufts is a former high school track star who hauled in a 61-yard pass against Iowa last season, but he played sporadically. Another sophomore, Jones showed speed and promise last year but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed the last five games. Keise has one career catch. Moulton, also a junior, had 14 receptions but no touchdowns last season.
Harbison, from Charlotte, N.C., and McDonald, a local suburban star from Hopkins, have injected more speed into the group. Fruechte, another Minnesotan, played last year at Rochester Community and Technical College.
So there are many options but far from any obvious All-Big Ten candidates.
"I need that vertical threat. We need that guy who's going to go up and get the ball,'' said quarterback MarQueis Gray, who has pushed the group to fine-tune routes and techniques throughout the summer and the beginning of fall camp.
Green is the only one with significant experience. Last year, Matt Limegrover was his fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons, so this time he has finally grown comfortable with the system he's supposed to know inside and out.
"We put it on our backs and not worry about what the coaches think,'' Green said of the pressure applied within the program on this group to get better.
Jones progressed ahead of the typical ACL rehabilitation schedule and was an active participant in spring practice. If he's healthy, he has the skills to be one of the starters and perhaps Gray's go-to guy.
"We're definitely striving to cut out those errors. And the coaches are putting that pressure on us. They know we're going to get better. They see us working hard,'' Jones said.
Kill specified Crawford-Tufts as one player he's confident will have a strong season. Gray named Harbison and McDonald as two guys he's counting on.
"Those guys have been like veterans out there,'' Gray said, adding: "The sky's the limit for them.''
Then there's Fruechte, who helped lead Caledonia to state championships in 2007 and 2008. He has turned some heads in practice as well.
"In the spring I felt like a freshman, for sure, because I was learning everything. I'm still learning a lot, and I still screw up now, but I screwed up a lot more in the spring. Now I know everyone, and hopefully everyone knows me,'' Fruechte said, adding: "I think people are looking at us like they don't expect much out of us, but we feel like we can compete with anybody. So I think we'll do fine.''
All it can take, sometimes, is a couple of good games.
"It's a confidence thing. Once you go up there and catch one of `em, you go up there and catch another one,'' Kill said.
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