MINNEAPOLIS — When A.J. Barker infamously left the Gophers football team during the season last year, there was a question as to who would step up at wide receiver for Minnesota. After all, Barker led all Gophers receivers in seemingly every important category.
Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte hope to provide a few aanswers. The wide receiver duo finished second and third, respectively, in receiving yards after Barker. Fruechte’s 19 catches were second-most on the Gophers behind Barker’s 30, while Engel’s 375 receiving yards were second only to Barker’s 577.
Both receivers have the experience of last year to build on for 2013, and they’re both a year older. Engel, a Chaska native, will be a redshirt senior, while Fruechte — a former junior college player at Rochester Community and Technical College — is a redshirt junior. Through seven spring practices, those two have emerged as leaders on offense and the top two targets for sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson.
“It’s all about comfort,” said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. “I think the biggest thing is that Derrick Engel, he knows he’s got a role now. It isn’t an up-in-the-air thing. He knows he’s part of this. Isaac Fruechte’s a whole entire year out of junior college. He’s been here through now, his second spring, a full season. … There’s a relaxation among those two.”
Like Fruechte, Engel came to Minnesota via a transfer. He spent two years playing for Winona State, leading his team in receiving with 39 catches for 584 yards. After sitting out the 2011 season with the Gophers due to NCAA transfer rules. He was a bit of an unknown entering 2012 and never caught more than two passes until the final regular-season game with Minnesota. His breakout performance came in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when the then-junior caught four passes for 108 yards in the Gophers’ 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
After his late-season emergence a year ago, Engel knows he’ll be counted on more in 2013.
“I kind of saw it come more towards the end of the season,” he said of his increased role in Minnesota’s offense. “I’ve just got to embrace that role and do whatever I can do to help our team win. If that’s playing more and going up and making plays for us, that’s what I’m going to do.”
He won’t be alone, though, as the Gophers will also be relying on Fruechte to share some of the work at receiver. The Caledonia native is the bigger of the two receivers at 6-foot-3, 204 pounds, meaning he’s also used more often in the running game.
Fruechte, who had a season-high three catches twice last year, feels his versatility will be key to Minnesota’s offense.
“I guess I just feel more comfortable with everything right now in the offense,” Fruechte said. “Coaches are kind of moving me around a little bit more, playing different positions, which is nice. I think it’s just (comfort) with everything. I think the ball just kind of finds you when you’re more natural with everything that’s going on.”
The Gophers have several other receivers they’re hoping to see production from this year. That includes speedsters Devin Crawford-Tufts and K.J. Maye. Coaches have also mentioned the names of Victor Keise and Logan Hutton as receivers who have started to find their role in Minnesota’s offense.
Fruechte and Engel seemed to have already found their roles and have grown comfortable in those spots. Now a year older, the Gophers hope they’re also a year better.
“When you look at it, those two are probably the furthest along from a receiver standpoint in our system,” Limegrover said. “You’d love to have about seven or eight you could choose from, without a doubt. I think the guys are beginning to get their opportunities. …
“There’s a whole group of guys. I think the next three weeks are just huge for them. We’re going to give them a lot of opportunities to prove either they belong on the inside or the outside of the depth chart.”