Minnesota must find a go-to threat for its aerial attack.
By TYLER MASONFS North
This is the third in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team's start of practice.
July 22: Quarterbacks July 23: Running backs July 24: Wide receivers July 25: Tight ends July 26: Offensive linemen July 27: Defensive linemen July 28: Linebackers July 29: Cornerbacks July 30: Safeties July 31: Specialists Aug. 1: Coaches
Key backups: Marcus Jones (sophomore), Victor Keise (redshirt junior), Andre McDonald (freshman)
The breakdown: During quarterback MarQueis Gray's first season as the starting quarterback in 2011, his go-to target was wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight. During his senior season, McKnight racked up a team-high 51 catches for 760 yards and four touchdowns. After McKnight, though, there was a big drop-off in production from Minnesota's wide receiver corps. The second-highest reception total (16) came from tight end Collin McGarry.Green was second among receivers with 15 catches for 190 yards.
Even with McKnight, the Gophers lacked much of a playmaking ability in the passing game. As a result, Minnesota was second-to-last in pass offense among Big Ten teams with just 150.3 passing yards per game. Now, Minnesota must find a go-to threat for Gray to replace McKnight, who was seventh in the Big Ten in both receptions per game (4.2) and receiving yards per game (63.3).
"I think the big thing is we're working to be better from No. 1 to No. 6 or 7 rather than having Da'Jon and a bunch of guys who kind of roam around out there," Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said this spring. "So I think if everybody picks up there game just a little bit, the bigger picture will be that it's easier to absorb the loss of a great player if the remaining players each step up their game a little bit more and cumulatively make up for that lost production that you're subtracting from the equation."
Green earned a redshirt year in 2010 after playing in just two games, but he returns in 2012 as the most experienced receiver. Last year was Moulton's first season with the Gophers after spending a year at Fort Scott Community College. He appeared in all 12 games with Minnesota in 2011, catching 14 passes for 174 yards. As a true freshman last year, Crawford-Tufts turned heads at times despite catching just eight passes all season. His best game came in a win over Iowa in which he hauled in two passes for 100 yards.
The wildcard of the group is McDonald, an incoming freshman from Hopkins (Minn.) High School. McDonald originally committed to play at Vanderbilt but de-committed when the Commodores' wide receivers coach left the program. McDonald then decided he would play in his home state of Minnesota. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, McDonald is one of the biggest and most physical receivers on the roster. He has a chance to be an impact player as a freshman.
Keise and Jones also saw some playing time last year, although Jones suffered a torn ACL early in his freshman season after appearing in just seven games. He's also a threat as a kickoff returner, as he showed by taking a kickoff back for a touchdown against Purdue. Still, coming off a serious knee injury, Jones will need to prove he's healthy in order to become a factor with the Gophers' offense.
Best position battle: The best battle to watch will be for who can become Gray's primary target as the team's top receiver. Last season, Gray loved throwing to the physical McKnight, who measured 6-foot-3, 211 pounds. McDonald has similar size, but can the freshman pick up the offense quick enough to become an early favorite for Gray?
Otherwise, Gray has established a chemistry with the likes of Green, Moulton and Crawford-Tufts. Moulton is a bit undersized for a No. 1 receiver (5-foot-11, 185 pounds). Crawford-Tufts appeared to have added some muscle to his thin frame, but he's more of a threat to stretch the field and use his speed (he was a state sprinter for Edina High School). Green has the most receptions (15) and receiving yards (190) of any returning wide receiver. The battle this fall for the No. 1 receiver should be an interesting one to watch in camp.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Nebraska. 2. Northwestern. 3. Wisconsin. Many of the conference's top receivers from a year ago are gone. In fact, the top seven in receptions per game were all seniors a year ago, as were seven of the top nine in receiving yards per game. That means there are plenty of opportunities for young or unknown receivers to emerge in 2012. Nebraska returns the likes of Kenny Bell, who caught 32 passes for 461 yards and three touchdowns last season, as well as Quincy Enunwa (21 catches, 293 yards) and Jamal Turner (15 catches, 243 yards). Northwestern loses Jeremy Ebert (75 catches, 1,060 yards), but has depth with receivers such as senior Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones. The Wildcats' Kyle Prater transferred from Southern California and is awaiting word of whether he will be eligible for this season after transferring for family reasons. And Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis might be regarded as one of the top wideouts in the conference, but the Badgers don't have a ton of depth after Abbrederis. Overall, it appears to be a weak year for wide receiver talent in the Big Ten.