Coming into camp this August, Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker was bigger, faster and stronger than in his first year of play.
Now two games into his sophomore season, Decker is already emerging as one of the Gophers’ best offensive weapons in the spread coast offense.
His 11 catches for 177 yards lead the Gophers while his two touchdown receptions are second on the team behind senior wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright, who has three.
“I’m going to take the role as it is and when I get my opportunities, I’m going to make the most of them,” Decker said. “Hopefully this year, I get more opportunities to make plays.”
As a redshirt freshman last season, Decker played in all 13 games including three starts. The receiver hauled in 26 receptions for 378 yards and was hit three times in the end zone.
Last year’s two leading receivers, wide receiver Logan Payne and tight end Matt Spaeth, were lost to graduation, leaving first-year head coach Tim Brewster with Decker and Wheelwright to lead the receiving corps.
And since taking the job, Brewster has continually been impressed by Decker’s performance on the field.
“The No. 1 thing is his preparation for the game is outstanding. He’s a student of the game, so he goes into the game very, very confident,” Brewster said. “Then he’s got physical tools; the kid’s got great speed, he’s got size and he’s got strength.”
Decker also has experience on the field, something that is making the receiver a favorite target for Weber.
“He’s the type of athlete that when he’s on the football field you look for him. We have a lot of guys that are go-to,” Weber said. “Depending on what the defense does, there is going to be a lot of targets out there, but Decker is definitely one that is easy to see.”
Brewster describes both Decker and Weber as so-called “students of the game with great physical talent” – perhaps foreshadowing a potentionally successful on-field relationship similar to Spaeth and former Minnesota quarterback Bryan Cupito’s, which led to each player breaking school records in their positions.
Although this season marks the first time the duo has played together, Decker and Weber have known each other for four years after they met at a Minnesota recruiting camp.
Decker is also very familiar with Weber’s playing situation, coming in as a younger player and being asked to produce.
“I’m happy for him, he’s a great quarterback and he’s done some great things so far,” Decker said. “Being a freshman and starting in the Big Ten is a tough position to be in.”
According to Decker, the program stressed to its returning players the importance of making Weber comfortable by coming up with big plays throughout the game – something that the Minnesota offense is capable of doing under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar.
And big play production was no more apparent than in last week’s win over Miami (Ohio), which featured Weber hitting Decker with a fourth quarter 59-yard touchdown pass as well as a 25-yard TD reception in overtime.
“We get more opportunities now to make plays and show what we can do,” Decker said. “That’s been the case in the last couple games.”
Decker added that learning from former players Payne and Cupito and current wide receiver Wheelwright helped him adjust to the college game.
As the season progresses, Weber will likely continue to mature as a Division I football player, but Brewster still sees Decker as a crutch for the offense to balance on.
“We’ve just got to lean on Eric Decker more and more each week.”