MINNEAPOLIS — When the 2013 football season started, the Gophers were hoping wide receivers Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte would emerge as go-to targets for quarterback Philip Nelson.
One year later, the landscape of Minnesota’s aerial attack has completely changed. Engel graduated after suffering a torn ACL during his senior year. Fruechte will be a redshirt senior in 2014, but his production dropped off in the second half of 2013 as the Caledonia, Minn., native failed to find the end zone.
Oh, and Nelson is now playing at Rutgers after transferring this offseason.
With spring ball underway, Minnesota is hoping its new-look passing game can take flight in head coach Jerry Kill’s fourth season. In for Nelson is redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner. Two of his top targets? Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, a pair of receivers who emerged as true freshman last year and are poised to follow up with strong sophomore campaigns.
That’s a lot of youth in the passing game for the Gophers. Kill knows that young unit will need one key ingredient heading into the season.
"Maturity," Kill said. "I think that’s the key word is just learning the position and maturity as a player and strength. The longer you spend in the weight room, the stronger you get. . . . That’s important, I think the development, just the maturity level from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint."
Jones was originally recruited as a two-star quarterback, but Minnesota appeared set at that position and felt it could use the athletic Georgia native right away. So they moved him to receiver, where he finished with 10 catches — nine of which came in the last five games — for 157 yards. He also ran the ball 16 times, often on end arounds. Another important number: 205, as in the weight he hopes to play at. He came to campus as a 184-pound freshman and currently checks in at 196 as he continues to add muscle to compete against the physical corners of the Big Ten.
As cliche as it sounds, Jones hopes the year of experience he now has under his belt will help springboard him to an even bigger season as a sophomore.
"I want to get a touchdown this year. That’s really the main goal," said Jones, who threw for 16 touchdown passes and rushed for seven more as a senior in high school but was shut out in his first year as a wideout with the Gophers. "Other than that, try to have a better record than we did last year."
Wolitarsky came to Minnesota as the most decorated high school receiver in California history, setting the state record for catches and receiving yards. At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, he provided a big target at receiver for both Nelson and Leidner. Like Jones, the hope is that Wolitarsky will take yet another step forward in his progression.
That goes for the entire passing game, which now appears to be in the hands of Leidner. The Lakeville, Minn., native split time at quarterback with Nelson last year and eventually made four starts. Leidner rushed for more touchdowns (seven) than he threw (three), but he’ll now have a bit more chemistry with a receiving corps that is still fairly young.
Before spring ball even started, Leidner organized a practice with just the team’s quarterbacks and receivers, hoping to get onto the same page and help the Gophers’ passing game prepare for camp. While Minnesota’s coaches weren’t present for those impromptu practices, they love the results they’ve seen.
"We made a couple changes, some things we wanted to do throwing the football and in trying to do that, the first practice was probably going to be a recipe for disaster," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "So really, Mitch took it upon himself and he got those guys and said, ‘Hey, this is what we want to do, but if we don’t get it done before we go out there on our own, then we’re going to be behind.’ . . . I thought those guys did a phenomenal job, because we literally hit the ground running with some of that stuff."
Of the wide receivers back from last year’s team, only Wolitarsky had a touchdown catch. His 15 receptions and 259 yards are also tops among all returning receivers. Jones was right behind him, with Fruechte and KJ Maye combining for 20 catches.
When asked to name a receiver who didn’t contribute much in 2013 but could be key to the Gophers’ passing game in 2014, Eric Carter was the first name to roll off Jones’ tongue. Coaches have raved about the 5-foot-11 redshirt freshman, and his fellow receivers are excited about his potential, too.
"I felt like he probably could have played last year," Jones said.
Before coming to Minnesota, Jones was a standout basketball player at Dutchtown High School in Stockbridge, Ga. He said he has no regrets about leaving that game behind to focus on football, especially now that he figures to contribute quite a bit as a sophomore.
Turns out, though, that Jones isn’t even the best basketball player on the Gophers. When prompted, he named cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun — currently recovering from a knee injury — as the team’s top hoops player.
"But I’m coming for him," Jones said.
That goes for the football field, too, when Jones and Boddy-Calhoun are matched up in practice. Going against Boddy-Calhoun, a redshirt junior, will only help make the sophomore Jones better. And some friendly competition certainly adds to the mix.
"He’s always talking trash," Jones said. "So I can’t wait for him to get back."