Receiver duo doing all the right things for the Gophers

Decker and Wheelwright are a dominant pair in the Big Ten.

Luke Middendorf

After many years of high-caliber running games, Minnesota has gained a reputation to be a run-first, pass-second offense.

But with the emergence of the Big Ten’s top receiving combo in Ernie Wheelwright and Eric Decker, the Gophers’ passing game is now second to none.

Through seven games, no Big Ten duo has hauled in more combined receptions than Decker with 49 and Wheelwright with 36.

Wheelwright, a senior, said his relationship has flourished with the sophomore Decker as they began to thrive together on the field this season.

“I’m always messing with him, saying that we’re like Shaq and Wade,” Wheelwright jokingly said in reference to the NBA’s Miami Heat teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. “The difference is that we’re on the football field.”

When asked about the reference and which of the two NBA players that he is, Decker said with a smile, “He’s (Wheelwright) been saying that since the beginning of the year. I’m Wade because he’s taller … and older.”

The addition of the spread offense from offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar has allowed the two receivers to see more time on the field, mainly because it features a wide-open passing attack that often shows three to five receivers in a formation.

Wheelwright said he thinks the new offense has helped bring more opportunities for him to make big plays.

“Being around coach Dunbar’s offense and coach Brewster’s scheme and the confidence that they have put in me has been big,” Wheelwright said. “They let me know that they wanted me to be a big player here and that I needed to step up and make plays.”

After a breakout freshman season in 2004 in which he led Minnesota in receiving touchdowns with seven and was arguably the best freshman wide out in the conference, Wheelwright’s coaches and fans had high expectations for him in his years to come.

The 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pound receiver added a solid sophomore campaign, as he was the team’s leader in receiving yards with 568 and also tied for the team lead in touchdowns and receptions.

But his junior year was a different story, as Wheelwright did not continue his steady improvement and some said that his ability might have reached its peak.

Wheelwright failed to catch a touchdown pass until the eighth game of the season in 2006, but then followed by catching a touchdown pass in each of the last four games.

Coming into his senior season, expectations were high for Wheelwright to improve his coordination and to have softer hands in order to become the big play receiver that Minnesota fans were hoping for from the time he stepped on the field in 2004.

Wheelwright said he worked extra hard this offseason with the new coaching staff to improve his strength and physical skills to get primed for a strong senior season.

The other change for Wheelwright was the pressure that new head coach Tim Brewster put on him from day one to be their go-to guy to make big plays.

From early in fall camp, Wheelwright said that Brewster put an emphasis on him being the leader of the receiving corps, and also an emphasis on catching every ball that comes his way.

“The challenge, as everybody knows, has been for Ernie to step up and be a more consistent player,” Brewster said.

Brewster went on to describe the new practice habits that Wheelwright has obtained, and said that he told Wheelwright about another receiver that has been quite successful with his famously strong work ethic and practice habits.

“I told Ernie that I had the benefit of being with Jerry Rice in practice,” a smiling Brewster said. “I’ve never seen a great football player that didn’t practice well.”

The extra off season work has shown in his season statistics, as the senior Wheelwright has gotten off to the best start of his college career.

On Saturday at Northwestern, Wheelwright might just have had the best game of his four year career at Minnesota, as he hauled in seven catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns.

Most notably, Wheelwright used his height and athleticism to go full extension in the end zone for a spectacular touchdown grab to give the Gophers their first lead of the game.

Wheelwright has already hauled in 36 receptions for 460 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, just three shy of Minnesota’s single season touchdown record of 11.

The senior has also moved into fourth all time in receiving yards for the Gophers, with 2,119. He needs just 114 more to move into third.

Wheelwright’s most impressive record at Minnesota is his second-place ranking in all-time receiving touchdowns with 25, something that he is very proud of. Ron Johnson is in a solid first with 31.

“Since I came to Minnesota I wanted to leave my mark,” Wheelwright said. “The best way of doing it is getting into the record books.”

Wheelwright’s receiving partner Decker has a ways to go to get his name into the all time the record books. His fast start is putting him in line to have one of the best single seasons for a receiver in Gophers’ history.

Although just a sophomore, Decker is currently leading the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards, and needs just 14 more catches to eclipse the highest single season reception mark at Minnesota of 62.

After showing signs of greatness in his freshman season, Decker has truly broken out in his sophomore year.

But Decker said he knows that the big 6-foot-5-inch receiver on the other side of the field has had a big impact on his stellar season.

“We need each other because it’s going to balance out the defense,” Decker said. “With a big threat on both sides it gives us more opportunities to make plays.”