Receivers still a work in progress

Minnesota has a youthful group at wide receiver this season.

Jack Satzinger

In the span of 10 months, the Gophers football team has lost three of its top receivers, all for different reasons.

There was A.J. Barker’s scathing letter to head coach Jerry Kill last November, announcing he was leaving the team midseason.

Then in July, Devin Crawford-Tufts left the program in favor of track and field.

And last week, Kill announced Andre McDonald would not play for the Gophers this season after violating team rules.

Now Minnesota is working to develop its receivers before Big Ten play ramps up in a few weeks.

“We had about two or three drops that we can’t afford to have, but there’s talent in [the receiving corps],” Kill said at his Tuesday press conference. “We’ve got to get it figured out over the next three or four weeks and keep teaching kids.”

Kill said Sunday that true freshman Donovahn Jones has played more wide receiver recently as the team searches for a playmaker on offense. He said another freshman wide receiver, Drew Wolitarsky, would see a bigger role this Saturday against Western Illinois.

Starting receiver Derrick Engel said Wolitarsky is “football savvy” and has a lot of potential due to his size — he weighs more than 200 pounds.

Kill said redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison will also play Saturday. Harbison has barely seen the field at Minnesota after sustaining a season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener at Nevada-Las Vegas.

“He’s a physical player and a playmaker,” Kill said of Harbison. “He’s got some physical strength and playmaking, but … we haven’t seen that on game day.”

Engel becoming confident

While the Gophers develop young receivers, they’re also trying to polish their veterans. In Minnesota’s 2013 opener against UNLV, Engel, a redshirt senior, struggled. He didn’t register a single reception and appeared to be responsible for sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson’s only interception of the game.

Still, Engel didn’t let one bad game bother him and recorded two receptions last week at New Mexico State — including a 48-yard bomb from Nelson that nearly ended in a touchdown.

It was the Gophers’ longest pass play of the season thus far, and Engel said that helped him build confidence.

“I didn’t have a great first game and missed a lot of deep balls,” he said. “It’ll help me personally gain some confidence, and we’ve got to hit those plays for our offense to be successful.”

Notes

– Sophomore defensive lineman Alex Keith broke a bone in his hand last week. Kill expects him to play with a soft cast this weekend.

– Nelson appeared to suffer a minor injury Saturday. Kill said he’s not concerned about him getting hurt as a running quarterback and said the team will stick to their game plan.

– After missing last week’s game with an ankle injury, redshirt junior running back Donnell Kirkwood is progressing in rehab. Kill wouldn’t say whether he’ll play Saturday.