This is the preview that should strike fear into the hearts of all Gopher fans. Last year, our top WR went Serpico on the team and faded off into bolivian. With Barker laying fingers to keyboard to let us know coaches yell sometimes; the team was forced to move on with a freshman QB learning on the job and throwing to a group of WRs that were all asked to do more.
In Nelson's second game at QB he threw for 246 yards and 3 TDs. Barker caught two of the TDs and accounted for 125 of the yards. The next 5 games were without Barker and resulted in passing totals of 142, 78, 59, 61 and 138 yards for Nelson.
So, we need dudes to step up in a big way if we expect to have any kind of passing threat in 2013. There are some veterans that haven't caught any/many passes in their careers and there are some underclassmen that are either coming off of injuries or love the sweet sticky icky.
One must also pay close attention to the tight ends in Matt Limegrover's offense. This could be an area of depth and strength for the Gophers and really be a safety valve for Phillip Nelson.
Senior Derrick Engel is the returning receiver with the most yardage in 2012 amassing 375 yards on 18 catches. He had a great Meineke Car Care Bowl with 4 catches for 108 yards and became a solid deep threat. Engel is 6'2", 187 lbs out of Chaska and transferred to the Gophers from Winona State. He has good hands and seems to be able to find open spaces in the defense. By no means does he overwhelm you with speed and athleticism though. He's confident in this team's receivers though, “It’s definitely motivating to us to prove people wrong,” Engel said. “Our goal is to lead the Big Ten in receiving. We’ve got to shoot for the stars, if we want to make a run at this thing [as a team].” (source)
Junior Isaac Freuchte is a more imposing wide receiver at 6'3" and 204 lbs. His 19 receptions in 2012 are the most for a returning receiver. Freuchte has value as a run blocker and should be able to use his size to make plays. Again though, this is not a player that has a lot of explosion. I saw in that sourced link above he was listed as a 4.4 in the 40 yard dash (as was Engel), but I'm not buying it.
Jamel Harbison blew his knee in his first game as a freshman against UNLV last year and was granted a medical red-shirt. Harbison is the perfect slot receiver. He's 5'11", 199lbs and has great agility, quickness and hands. Getting a full year out of Jamel and production from the slot could be a huge boost to this offense. I'd really like him to step up and be a top receiving option.
KJ Maye is even a bit smaller than Harbison and also operates in the slot, but he's more compact and low to the ground like a running back. Maye is a swiss army knife of a player; playing running back, receiver and returner. He'll even throw the occasional pass or two due to his HS quarterback background. As a freshman he had 17 carries for 57 yards and 11 catches for 49 yards. He's a good option on screens and in the flats and has some ability to break plays open, although we didn't see a ton of that in his first year. Both he and Harbison will see a lot of time on the field.
Andre McDonald caught ten balls as a freshman last year but was suspended for the bowl game for violating team rules. He missed the entire spring dealing with "personal issues", but returned for fall practice. He's 6'2" and 200lbs and is a vertical threat. Unfortunately, in the last few days he's once again found himself suspended -- this time for the remainder of fall camp. So sound the sad bugle and look elsewhere for explosive deep threats. He's still on the team at this point and I pray to the sweet baby Jesus he gets his shit together and can get on the field; but it doesn't look pretty.
There are a ton of other names on the roster; some of which are upperclassmen that have the opportunity to step forward and show something after a few lackluster years with the Gophers where they either haven't had the opportunity or haven't done anything when an opportunity was presented to them. RS JR Logan Hutton, RS SR Victor Keise and RS JR Cameron Wilson are vets to watch -- and by watch I mean probably watch them stand on the sideline (but you never know!). Freshemen Drew Wolitarsky, Brian Smith and Eric Carter some new blood to look out for. RS SO Aaron Marmer is a transfer from Air Force, which is a WR hot bed. Obviously it would be ideal if you didn't have to keep burning red-shirts, but the Gophers will reach for anyone that can make some plays at this point. Marmer and Wolitarsky are white dudes, so keep an eye for them as they appear to pop up like weeds in this system.
The tight ends are big, athletic and I think pretty deep with both blocking and receiving options. Junior Drew Goodger (6'5", 265lbs) returns after recording 13 grabs last season playing alongside John Rabe. Goodger can both block and catch the ball. Lincoln Plsek (6'4", 265lbs) returns after playing 8 games as a freshman last season; recording 3 catches. Redshirt Freshman Maxx Williams (6'4", 254lbs) gets his first crack and looks to be a dynamic threat in the receiving game. He really goes up and gets the ball nicely.
RSJR Alex Bisch (6'6", 251lbx), RSSR Sahr Ngekia (6'4", 236lbs) and RSFR Duke Anyawu (6'4", 241) fill out the group and will handle some h-back work as well. I would be remiss if I didn't mention 6'9", 258lb freshman Nate Wozniak. He looks like a skyscraper running across the middle in pass patterns and it's awesome. He needs to add weight, especially in the upper body and I'd be shocked if he didn't redshirt. Just hope that you don't have to sit behind where he's standing on the sidelines at home games.
Popular opinion is that this team is going to grind it out in the run game and not rely on the pass much. Running the ball certainly seems to be a strength. However, one dimensional teams get eaten alive, especially in Big Ten play. The Gophers don't need to throw it 30+ times or be bombing the ball deep, but they do need to be efficient and need to at least have threats in the passing game in order to progress up to and beyond a 6 win team. Personally, I'd like to see them use these first four games against teams they should beat to develop the passing game more and hopefully find out what works and more importantly who can get the job done out there.