MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers freshman Donovahn Jones didn’t just have to learn a new playbook this fall — he had to learn an entirely new position.
Minnesota recruited Jones as a quarterback and intended to keep the Georgia native there. But the Gophers had a need for wide receivers, and Jones’ athleticism lent itself well to a possible position change.
So after talking about possibly redshirting, Jones instead switched to receiver as a freshman. Not only that, but he saw the field quite a bit for a true freshman. Now when Minnesota faces Syracuse later this month in the Texas Bowl, he’ll be one of quarterback Philip Nelson’s go-to targets as top receiver Derrick Engel is out with a knee injury.
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“I think Donovahn’s kind of starting to look at himself as being the guy,” said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. “I think that’s a great thing. There’s a lot of confidence there, and that’s going to keep pushing him.”
Jones admits that confidence is indeed the biggest difference between the quarterback version of himself who first stepped foot on campus to the wide receiver version that finished with 10 catches for 157 yards. It took him and fellow freshman wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky time in the fall to learn the playbook and adjust to life at the Division I level. Both players were stars in high school — Wolitarsky is the all-time leading receiver in California high school history, while Jones threw for 16 touchdowns his senior year — but were young fish in a big pond at Minnesota.
As the season has worn on and both players have garnered more playing time, neither has looked like a true freshman anymore.
“I don’t think you ever imagine young guys having to be put in that situation,” said Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill. “(Engel) was a critical loss for us. He was a big playmaker. So these guys, they’ve got to step up — and they have. They’ve gotten better, and that’ll make us better for the future.”
Jones said the Gophers’ coaching staff showed him film of receiver Brent Little, whom Kill coached at Southern Illinois. But Jones also did some video research of his own, watching highlights of Eagles standout receiver DeSean Jackson.
From those videos, Jones said he honed in on those receivers’ techniques, their route running and their bursts off the line of scrimmage and tried to apply those facets to his own game.
“A big part of it was confidence. I never played (receiver) before, so I wasn’t sure about if I was doing things the right way or not,” Jones said. “I started watching wide receivers on YouTube on stuff, watching techniques.”
Wolitarsky, meanwhile, is currently the Gophers’ leading wide receiver in terms of both catches (11) and receiving yards (165) now that Engel is out. Part of the reason Wolitarsky made the trip from California to Minnesota was because he figured he could play as a freshman.
He wasn’t so sure he’d have this kind of impact so soon in his career, however.
“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,” Wolitarsky said. “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.”
Jones got his first catch in the second game of the season against New Mexico State, but then didn’t play the next two games and went without a catch for four more. Wolitarsky didn’t get his first grab until the first game of the Big Ten schedule, a 15-yarder against Iowa. His best game came in the regular-season finale, when he had a season-high three catches for 56 yards.
As the freshmen duo has learned routes and picked up on the terminology, their quarterback has gained more confidence in each of them.
“Their improvement has been drastic over the season,” Nelson said. “It’s going to be really exciting to see what happens in this bowl game and beyond that.”
Minnesota’s passing game as a whole has been hot and cold this year, leaning toward the latter more often than the former. That’s certainly been the case lately as the Gophers failed to top 200 passing yards in the final three games of the regular season. That included just 83 passing yards in a loss to Wisconsin. Earlier in the year, Minnesota passed for just 71 yards in a win against San Jose State.
The wide receiver corps as a whole was relatively young and inexperienced. At the same time, the progress that Wolitarsky and Jones have made as true freshmen has the Gophers’ coaching staff excited for the future.
“I think the most exciting thing is they haven’t even come close to hitting where they can both be as wide receivers,” Limegrover said. “I think the sky’s the limit for those two. That’s what’s so exciting about it. The effort that they’re going to put forth to be the kind of players we think they can be, we’re going to be very happy with that group in another year — probably as early as next year, because they both want it really bad.”