Gophers receiving corps looking up
MINNEAPOLIS—The Gophers' top receiving options in 2017 were Tyler Johnson and ... crickets.
Minnesota's lack of viable alternatives was borne out in the statistical share Johnson accounted for a year ago. During his sophomore season, the Minneapolis North grad had one-third of the team's receptions (35), nearly half of its receiving yards (677) and three-fourths of its touchdowns (seven) a year ago.
When Johnson broke his hand and missed the final two games, the Gophers essentially unplugged the passing game in season-ending blowout losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Receiving reinforcements, however, have arrived and/or returned. What Minnesota has will come into better focus when the Gophers hold a pivotal scrimmage Tuesday, Aug. 15, at TCF Bank Stadium.
Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas look to bounce back from freshman seasons sidetracked by injuries. Autman-Bell was limited with an undisclosed injury earlier in camp but participated Monday, while Douglas continued to rehab his own undisclosed injury.
True freshman Rashod Bateman has displayed impressive moments since fall camp started Aug. 1, with fellow newcomers Erik Gibson in the mix and Jornell Manns still rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee from high school.
Redshirt sophomore Phillip Howard, of Robbinsdale Cooper High School, was second on the U last year with 132 receiving yards.
But nobody beats Johnson to the front of the line for reps in every drill during practice. "I'm leading them by example and also my voice," he said at the start of camp. "... After that, whenever we go to the other side, I critique them and I make sure that their break point is right and they are creating separation (from defensive backs) and they are using their hands right. Things like that."
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said there is "no comparison" between the playmakers he believes he has now compared to last year.
"It would be laughable to try to make a comparison," Ciarrocca said. "That is a tribute to these guys. They worked their butts off to become better with their details and become better at all the fundamentals. ...
"When is it going to materialize on the field? I don't know," he continued. "But I know that we are really headed in the right direction, and that it's coming at some point. Like everybody else, I'm pushing for sooner rather than later."
Running back Rodney Smith was second on the team with 17 receptions, and depth is there now, too, with redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim, along with true freshmen Bryce Williams and Nolan Edmonds. Williams also was sidelined for part of camp but was back Monday.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Monday the running backs are "getting better. They are young and experienced, just like a lot of kids on our football team."
The Gophers graduated their two top tight ends — Nate Wozniak and Brandon Lingen — who combined for 16 catches for 188 yards. Lingen had two touchdowns a year ago— the only player besides Johnson to catch a TD pass for Minnesota last year.
The Gophers moved Seth Green from quarterback to tight end last spring and have been splitting him out like a receiver in a variety of formations during fall camp. Fleck said Green remains a tight end, but his athleticism makes it possible to give more of a wide receiver look.
"A change of position can be very difficult, and he's adapted to it really well," Fleck said. "We just now have to get him accustomed in the line and inserting and blocking, but he's not afraid. I know that. He sticks his nose in there."
The Gophers tweeted out a video Monday, highlighting a one-handed catch Green made in the end zone earlier in camp. During Friday's open-to-public practice, he caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Zack Annexstand, one of the session's biggest highlights.
Now, the Gophers need to see others besides Johnson make plays on Saturdays.