Engel works way up with Gophers

Wide receiver Derrick Engel transferred from a Division II school.

Minnesota wide receiver Derrick Engel scores a touchdown against Purdue on Oct. 27 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Anthony Kwan

Minnesota wide receiver Derrick Engel scores a touchdown against Purdue on Oct. 27 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Samuel Gordon

Gophers wide receiver Derrick Engel has a sore hamstring and is questionable for Saturday’s game.

Three months ago, it was questionable whether a healthy Engel would see any playing time. A couple of years ago, it was questionable if he was a Division I talent.

But Engel, a junior walk-on, has worked his way up the college football ranks and Minnesota’s depth chart.

He’s been a pleasant surprise for head coach Jerry Kill and his staff and has made plays for a team in sore need of playmakers.

Engel has caught a pass in seven of the Gophers’ nine games, and his 215 receiving yards rank second on the team.

“Everywhere I’ve been, there’s been somebody that’s walked on, or something’s happened, and they emerged,” Kill said. “He’s still maturing in the program.”

That’s because a couple years back, Engel was maturing in another program — Division II Winona State University.

Engel grew up a Gophers fan and said he wanted to play for Minnesota out of high school.

“That was my main goal — to get an offer from here,” he said. “That didn’t happen. I got a preferred walk-on offer.” He was also placed on the school’s academic wait list.

Forced to take a look at his other options, Engel took his talents to Winona State.

“I figured I could get down there, try to play right away as a freshman,” he said. “I didn’t really have any future plans as far as transferring.”

Engel starred as a freshman, establishing himself as a big-play machine for the Warriors and a top deep threat.

In 2009, he caught 25 passes for 686 yards and five touchdowns and was an All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference honorable mention.

As a sophomore, he finished the season with a team high of 39 catches and 584 yards and earned all-conference honors.

But that wasn’t enough for Engel.

“[Winona State] was a good fit for me,” he said, “but I thought that I could play at a higher level and decided to make the transfer.”

Engel said he made the decision after spring football in 2011. He obtained his release from Winona State and contacted Josh Sternquist, Minnesota’s assistant recruiting coordinator, about playing for the Gophers.

Sternquist connected Engel with Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, and Engel made his pitch.

“They said they liked my film, and I was faster than all the guys I was playing against,” Engel said. “They saw I was a playmaker off my film, and they thought it was worth bringing me in and using up one of the [roster] spots.”

He joined the team in 2011 and sat out the season as part of the NCAA regulations, which require transfers sit out a year. Though he was ineligible to play in games, Engel still practiced with the scout team and impressed his coaches in the process.

“I was making some plays in practice. It caught them off-guard when I was going against the [Gophers’] No. 1 defense,” he said. “I did that the whole first four months last year.”

Engel kept working. He made some noise in spring ball and some more noise in fall camp to earn a spot in the rotation.

True freshman quarterback Philip Nelson had high praise for Engel. Nelson said Engel has good ball skills and is one of the team’s top deep threats.

“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to prove himself and get to the next level,” Nelson said. “I feel like he still has a big chip on his shoulder, and he wants to prove even more that he can be a better player.”