MINNEAPOLIS — Of any question mark on the Gophers football roster in 2012 — and there are plenty — perhaps none is bigger than at wide receiver.
Minnesota knows that senior MarQueis Gray will be its starting quarterback. The question the Gophers must answer this fall is: Who will he be throwing to? Ask Gray who he thinks can possibly challenge to see playing time, and the first names he rattles off are those of freshmen.
“No guy has a complete shot at that No. 1 spot,” Gray said Thursday, two days before the Gophers begin fall camp. “I’ve mentioned Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald. Those guys have been looking like veterans out there among the other guys. They came in straight out of high school and have been ready to go ever since. Once they get this playbook down, the sky’s the limit for them this year.”
The two receivers mentioned by Gray will be true freshmen in 2012. Harbison comes to Minnesota via Charlotte and was ranked as a three-star recruit by Scout.com. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Harbison had 21 touchdowns during his senior season at Mallard Creek High School.
McDonald, meanwhile, is an instate product. He played his high school for Hopkins (Minn.) High School and originally committed to play for Vanderbilt. But after coaching changes for the Commodores, McDonald decommited and decided to play for the Gophers.
McDonald was ranked by Scout.com as the 75th-best wide receiver in the nation. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he’ll provide a big target for Gray.
But can Harbison or McDonald be impact players for Minnesota as true freshmen?
“If they’re going to play, of course,” Gray said. “If they’re going to touch that field, I expect them to have their hands on the ball a lot and make some plays for us.”
Gophers second-year coach Jerry Kill knows his team has a lot of unknowns at wide receiver, but he doesn’t necessarily think that means Minnesota is thin at the position. The Gophers have 14 wide receivers on the roster, but only a few of them saw action last season with Minnesota.
“I think where we need to find some play-makers and see what they do is wide receiver. I think that’s a critical position for us,” Kill said. “Are there going to be young freshman that can learn quick? I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We’ll have to force feed some of that. But we need some guys that are going to be dynamic play-makers to go up and get a ball and go make a play.”
Minnesota’s passing game ranked 11th out of 12 teams in the Big Ten last season, as the Gophers averaged just 150.3 yards per game. Among quarterbacks in the conference, Gray’s passing average of 135.9 yards per game ranked ninth.
While part of that had to do with Gray’s progression and growth as an inexperienced quarterback, a good portion was due to Minnesota’s lack of playmaking ability at the wide receiver position. Da’Jon McKnight led all Gophers receivers with 51 catches for 760 yards and four touchdowns as a senior, but Minnesota has to replace him.
After McKnight, the production severely dropped off. Among returning receivers, Brandon Green had the most receptions in 2011 with 15. Malcolm Moulton added 14 catches, while Marcus Jones had nine in just seven games before suffering a season-ending ACL injury.
Jones, a sophomore, said Thursday that his knee is good to go and that he has no restrictions as Minnesota enters fall camp. The Gophers will rely on him as one threat in the aerial attack, but he said he feels responsible for helping out the new receivers.
“We definitely know as a group that we’ve got to push each other, because one mess up in camp, one missed play, it might not be your position anymore,” Jones said. “We know it’s competition within the group, but we also know we’re trying to make each other better to make the group better as a whole because there’s no set three receivers that will play in the game. They’re going to rotate six, seven receivers. So all of us have to be ready to play and all of us have to be at the top of our games.”
Minnesota saw somewhat of an emergence from freshman Devin Crawford-Tufts last season. The speedster from Edina (Minn.) High School had just eight catches all year but showed that he can be a deep threat. Kill has also mentioned Isaac Fruechte, who transferred to Minnesota from Rochester Community and Technical College. Victor Keise also saw the field in seven games last year but did not make a catch.
If the Gophers are to improve on last season’s 3-9 mark, they’ll certainly have to get more out of the passing game. The next several weeks will be important as Kill and his staff look for receivers they can rely on this season.
“Get some play-makers on the field that can make plays and make you look good as a coach. That is our biggest concern,” Kill said. “I think we have them, but can they learn and get ready to play here in a quick fashion.”