Gophers positional preview: Wide receivers

Minnesota wide receiver Donovahn Jones, a quarterback in high school, caught just 10 passes during his freshman year last season.

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This is the third in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.

Today’s position: Wide receivers

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5

Projected starters: Donovahn Jones (sophomore), Drew Wolitarsky (sophomore), KJ Maye (junior)

Key backups: Isaac Fruechte (redshirt senior), Eric Carter (redshirt freshman)

The breakdown: Minnesota’s wide receiver situation became so dire last season that the Gophers started a pair of true freshmen in Jones and Wolitarsky. While both receivers held their own — the duo combined for 25 catches and more than 400 receiving yards — it spoke to the lack of depth Minnesota had at the receiver position. Though much of it had to do with the quarterback play, struggles at wide receiver contributed to the Gophers finishing dead last in passing offense in the Big Ten in 2013 when they averaged just 148.1 yards per game through the air.

That will have to change in 2014 in order for Minnesota’s offense — and the team as a whole — to take a step forward. Wolitarsky, who came to the Gophers as the top prep receiver in California high school history, will no doubt be one of Leidner’s top targets. As a freshman last year, Wolitarsky finished with 15 catches, the most of any returning wide receiver. The Gophers coaching staff has high hopes for Wolitarsky as he continues to learn and develop at the Division I level.

Jones, meanwhile, had just 10 catches a season ago but flashed some raw athleticism at times. A former high school quarterback, Jones was still learning how to be a full-time wide receiver as a freshman last year. Like Wolitarsky, he was thrown into the fire during his first season on campus. Jones had two games in which he caught three passes, but didn’t find the end zone on any of his 10 receptions. Minnesota also used Jones in a handful of end-arounds, where he compiled 73 rushing yards on 16 carries.

Gophers positional previews

Maye saw plenty of reps as a slot receiver in Minnesota’s offense but didn’t take the step forward as a sophomore that the Gophers hoped he would. After making 11 catches as a freshman in 2012, Maye had just seven receptions in 2013. Given that he possesses some speed and elusiveness, Minnesota will need to find a way to get Maye the ball more often in 2014.

Coaches and teammates have raved about Carter’s talent since last year when he redshirted. He made some nice plays during spring ball, too, and could be fighting for playing time this fall. Fruechte is the veteran of the group, finishing his junior year last season with 13 catches.

Best position battle: Minnesota’s No. 1 receiver last year was Derrick Engel, who had 25 catches for 401 yards and tied for the team lead with five touchdowns. Now that Engel has graduated, though, the search is on for the top target for quarterback Mitch Leidner.

Based solely on results from 2013, it appears as if Wolitarsky has the best shot at becoming the Gophers’ leading receiver as a sophomore in 2014. At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, Wolitarsky provides a big target, and he showed good hands and a good vertical as a freshman. Jones is still learning the position a bit, so he may be a bit behind the learning curve compared to Wolitarsky. Still, both should see reps on the first-team offense. Now it’s a matter of who the No. 1 receiver is.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Maryland, 2. Nebraska, 3. Ohio State

Big Ten newcomer Maryland tops this list thanks to two receivers who missed half of the 2013 season with injuries. Many feel that Terps senior Stefon Diggs could be the top wide receiver in the Big Ten this season. In seven games before his injury last year, the 6-foot, 190-pound Diggs had 34 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns. As a freshman the year prior he had 1,896 all-purpose yards. Teammate Deon Long, who also played in just seven games last year due to injury, helps make Maryland’s receiving corps the best in the Big Ten. He had 32 catches for 489 yards before breaking his leg in 2013.

Though Kenny Bell’s numbers were down a bit at Nebraska last year, he returns in 2014 as the Huskers’ top receiver — and one of the top targets in the Big Ten. His speed makes him a dangerous threat in Nebraska’s passing attack, which loses Quincy Enunwa but returns Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Burtch, Jamaal Turner and Taariq Allen.

Buckeyes wide receiver Devin Smith is one of the most dynamic receivers in the Big Ten. As a junior last year, Smith had 44 catches for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. He now assumes OSU’s No. 1 receiver spot after the graduation of Corey Brown.

Drew Wolitarsky says: "At the beginning of the season, I didn’t play much, but they started trusting me more and more and I started making more plays for them. They told me that if I were to work hard and get bigger, stronger, faster, then I’d have a shot. I took advantage of that."

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