Little experience to be found in the Gophers’ wideouts

MINNEAPOLIS — Wide receivers Isaac Fruechte and Derrick Engel both grew up in Minnesota and eventually wound up playing for the hometown Golden Gophers. Their paths to Dinkytown were unconventional, but they followed a similar arc.

A native of Caledonia, a tiny town in the far southeastern corner of the state, Fruechte spent his first year after high school playing football at a junior college. Despite a standout career at Caledonia High School, Fruechte wound up at Rochester Community and Technical College, where he caught 30 passes for 805 yards and nine touchdowns in his only season there.

Engel, meanwhile, grew up closer to the Gophers’ campus, starring for Chaska High School about 30 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. Like Fruechte, his path to the U of M included a pit stop along the way. As an honorable mention all-state as a senior, Engel began his college football career at Division II Winona State. He spent two years there, playing in 10 games as a sophomore while leading his team with 39 catches. From there Engel opted to transfer to Minnesota, meaning he had to sit out the 2011 season due to NCAA rules.

Now that Engel and Fruechte are in their senior and junior years, respectively, the Gophers will be leaning on them to not only lead the wide receiver corps but also provide leadership for Minnesota’s offense.

“I know we kind of came not quite the same path but pretty similar,” Engel said. “Local Minnesota kids, took a different path the first year or two of college and both came here. I think it’s a good story and we’re both ready to make plays and prove people wrong.”

The duo combined to catch 37 passes and three touchdowns last year as the team’s second and third-leading receivers. Two of the Gophers’ other top wideouts from last year won’t be returning; leading receiver A.J. Barker infamously quit the team during the season, while speedster Devin Crawford-Tufts announced before fall camp that he was giving up football to focus on track and field.

That doesn’t leave the Gophers with much experience at wide receiver. Andre McDonald caught 10 passes as a sophomore last year, and slot receiver K.J. Maye caught 11 as a true freshman. From there the production plummets at the position.

But Minnesota’s two veteran receivers have confidence that the rest of the unit can produce in 2013.

“I think we’ve got a lot of competition,” Engel said. “We have a lot of unproven wide receivers, but we’re pretty deep, too, as far as people who could step in that position. I think there’s a couple of guys that are going to make an impact this year that haven’t yet. I think we’ve got guys like Jamel Harbison, Andre McDonald, guys like that. They’re ready to step in and be playmakers.”

Harbison missed nearly the entire season last year after tearing his ACL in the Gophers’ season opener against UNLV. McDonald saw playing time as a freshman but has had a bit of a tumultuous time on campus so far. He was dismissed from the team this summer for violating team rules and missed spring practice. The Gophers later reinstated McDonald prior to fall camp.

Other names have been mentioned in conversations this fall as incoming wide receivers who could see playing time this year. That includes freshmen Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky. Carter, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound wideout, comes to Minnesota from Lakeland, Fla. Wolitarsky finished his high school career at Canyon County High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., as the state of California’s all-time leader in receptions (281) and receiving yards (5,148).

“The new four (receivers), they’re all very good,” Fruechte said. “They really work hard, they show up for everything. They’re watching extra film. They text you and call you about the playbook. They really work hard. They’ve all really kind of shown that, ‘Wow, these kids are really good.'”

Still, many question marks remain with the wide receiver group. There are plenty of unknowns outside of Engel and Fruechte — and even those two have only one season of experience at the Division I level to draw from.

But ask sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson about the wide receiver group and he doesn’t sound concerned in the slightest about the targets he’ll be throwing to in 2013.

“A lot of people do ask about getting some new guys in. To be honest with you, I’m really confident with the guys we’ve got right now,” Nelson said. “They’ve been putting in their work in the offseason. … I think that’s going to be something that everybody’s going to see change from this year to next year. They’ve all gotten bigger and stronger and faster. I have a lot of confidence in them to be able to do their jobs this year.”

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