Returning Gophers receivers must fill void
MINNEAPOLIS — There was little question who Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray's favorite target was last season. Gray connected with then-senior Da'Jon McKnight more times than any other receiver, as McKnight led Minnesota with 51 catches for 760 yards and four touchdowns.
To put those numbers into perspective, no other Gopher caught more than 15 passes two touchdowns. Brandon Green was second on the team in receiving yards — with 190 for the entire season. McKnight nearly had that in one game, when he had 173 receiving yards and three of his four touchdowns against Michigan State.
Now, Minnesota must find a way to replace Gray's go-to receiver with a group that was very young a season ago.
"I think the big thing is we're working to be better from No. 1 to No. 6 or 7 rather than having Da'Jon and a bunch of guys who kind of roam around out there," said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "So I think if everybody picks up there game just a little bit, the bigger picture will be that it's easier to absorb the loss of a great player if the remaining players each step up their game a little bit more and cumulatively make up for that lost production that you're subtracting from the equation."
Green will be one of several receivers called up to fill McKnight's shoes, both on and off the field. As a redshirt senior, Green has been around longer than the rest of the young receiving corps. During his junior season, Green had 15 catches and just one touchdown.
With McKnight gone, Green knows he needs to elevate his play.
"I've got the most experience on the receiving side," Green said. "So I feel like I've got to be a leader and step up and be more vocal and make plays out there."
Gray expects his fellow senior Green to step right into that leadership role.
"I shouldn't have to push him. He knows that he's that guy in the room," Gray said of Green. "He's the senior leader and this is his last year to be able to make a name for himself. I'm going to do whatever I can to get him the ball. I know he's going to make some plays for us."
But Minnesota also has some young wideouts that are expected to see significant playing time. Edina, Minn., native Devin Crawford-Tufts was one of the true freshmen thrust into the fire last year with the Gophers in need of depth at wide receiver. Crawford-Tufts finished with eight catches for 156 yards after not playing in the Gophers' first four games of the season. The speedy freshman made a big impact in Minnesota's win against Iowa as he caught two passes for 100 yards.
Marcus Jones also saw time as a freshman last year, catching nine passes for 142 yards as the Gophers' slot receiver. But Jones tore his ACL in the middle of the season and was shut down for the last five games. While he's continuing to work back from the knee injury, Jones is still limited in practice this spring.
When he returns fully healthy, Jones should be another weapon at Gray's disposal.
"It's good to have Marcus back, because he's that speed we need in the slot position," Gray said.
Added Limegrover: "He's such a versatile kid and can do some great things for us. Getting him back's going to be huge when he's 100 percent."
For the most part, Minnesota's wide receivers are still young. Malcolm Moulton, who was third on the team in receiving yards with 174 last season, is a junior. Green is a senior. But Crawford-Tufts and Jones will both be sophomores. Outside of those four, the Gophers don't have a returning player who had more than 100 receiving yards last year.
But that young group now has a season together with Gray, who was the Gophers' starting quarterback last year after spending his first two seasons at wide receiver.
That chemistry between Gray and his receivers is continuing to develop and is already paying dividends.
"We're much more comfortable on the field as a group together, not just as wide receivers but as a whole offense," Moulton said. "We came in here and we had to develop kind of a relationship in a short term. I feel like after the whole year developing with MarQueis and Max (Shortell) and the rest of the quarterbacks that we'll all be a good unit together."
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