The breakdown: The Gophers were among the worst passing offenses in the Big Ten last year as they lacked depth at the wide receiver position in 2012 — and that was before leading receiver A.J. Barker up and quit the team during the season. Barker led Minnesota in almost every receiver category with 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. He was sidelined by an ankle injury and eventually left the team while infamously bashing the coaching staff in a lengthy blog post.
After Barker’s departure, Minnesota saw Derrick Engel and Isaac Fruechte step up to become the team’s top two receivers. Still, neither reached the 20-catch mark last year and they combined for just three touchdowns. The Gophers need both of them to take a step forward in 2013 to help out quarterback Philip Nelson.
K.J. Maye proved to be a versatile weapon for Minnesota as a true freshman last year. He began the year mostly at running back but was moved to slot receiver, where he’ll play this year. He had 11 catches for 49 yards, numbers that should increase during his sophomore campaign. Maye is a bit undersized for a receiver (5-foot-10, 197 pounds), but his speed and shiftiness will play well as an inside/slot receiver.
Minnesota has several receivers who are wild cards entering the 2013 season. Devin Crawford-Tufts is perhaps the Gophers’ best vertical threat — he’s also a sprinter for the Minnesota track team — but he’s had injuries during his first two years and caught just 16 passes for 189 yards as a sophomore.
Andre McDonald was briefly dismissed from the team for violating team policy but has since been reinstated. He caught 10 passes for 121 yards as a true freshman in 2012. Gophers coaches had high expectations last year for Jamel Harbison, but the freshman tore his ACL in Minnesota’s first game and missed the rest of the season. Harbison took part in spring practices and could make an impact in the passing game in 2013.
Best position battle: Barker emerged out of nowhere to become the Gophers’ top receiver a year ago. With Barker now gone, Minnesota enters the 2013 season with no true No. 1 receiver for Nelson to target.
There’s a good chance Nelson’s top receiver could be either Engel or Fruechte, as both showed signs of being a reliable No. 1 receiver a year ago. Since Nelson took over as the starter midway through the season, it took him some time to develop a chemistry with his receivers. He connected with Engel four times for 108 yards in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, while Fruechte was held without a catch. In fact, Fruechte — a junior college transfer prior to last year — was held to just one total catch for four yards over the final three games last season.
Minnesota doesn’t necessarily need to have a clear-cut No. 1 receiver, and may be better suited if Engel and Fruechte share the catches. Still, it will be interesting to see if one of these two makes a big step forward to assert himself as Nelson’s go-to receiver.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Allen Robinson (Penn State) 2. Cody Latimer (Indiana) 3. Kenny Bell (Nebraska)
As a sophomore last year, Robinson led the Big Ten in both receptions per game (6.4) and receiving yards per game (84.4). He was the lone receiver in the conference to surpass 1,000 yards and added a Big Ten-best 11 touchdown receptions. The biggest question with Robinson is whether he can maintain that production with a new quarterback this year. Gone is Matt McGloin, leaving a void under center for the Nittany Lions.
Latimer leads a talented wide receiver corps at Indiana that helped the Hoosiers boast the top passing offense in the conference in 2012. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior was right behind Robinson in most receiving categories.
As a sophomore, Bell caught 50 passes for 863 yards and eight touchdowns. He will reconnect with Huskers senior quarterback Taylor Martinez and could put up numbers similar to Robinson and Latimer in 2013.
Head coach Jerry Kill says: “We need some guys to grow up and be playmakers, you know, and I think that you look at the receiving core, and those kids have worked hard, and we’ve got to keep them healthy. Isaac Fruechte we’ve got to keep healthy, and he’s had a great offseason. And K.J. Maye, we moved him out there to inside receiver because of his quickness, and we need to develop him like a lot of people are doing in that slot position.”