Wheelwright and Payne key as wideout returnees

Matt Perkins

When the first day of padded spring practice began for Minnesota’s football team, it was missing the shoulders of a few wide receivers.

Graduating seniors Jared Ellerson and Jakari Wallace, along with transferring sophomore Micah Rucker, will no longer be suiting up for the Gophers.

And spring practice offers Minnesota a chance to weigh its options on the outside.

“We went from five or six guys we know can play, have seen the field, to now just two,” wide receivers coach Luke Tressel said. “And that can be a concern.”

But Tressel noted the team does bring back a pair of productive receivers in Logan Payne and Ernie Wheelwright.

Payne, a junior, was the Gophers’ leading receiver last year with 37 catches for 527 yards and two touchdowns.

Wheelwright, a sophomore, was second on the team with 30 catches for 448 yards and four touchdowns.

Payne and Wheelwright will be the two familiar faces lining up outside for Minnesota, but much of the team’s attention is focused on its unfamiliar wideouts.

Redshirt freshmen Eric Decker and Mike Chambers are two of the young receivers the Gophers will need contribution from next season.

“It’s a big advantage that we had the ability to redshirt those guys,” Tressel said. “They have that little bit of extra experience under their belts and they know what is going to be expected from them.”

In fact, expectations for the two have been building for a while.

Coach Glen Mason said that after seeing what Chambers and Decker are capable of, he would have loved a chance to make changes to last year’s roster.

“I know I’ve said it before, but if I had to do last year over again, I would like to see Eric Decker and Mike Chambers play,” Mason said. “They are both very talented young men.”

Minnesota knows the pair can catch the ball, but how will they fit in to the team’s run-first mentality?

Chambers was named All-State as a senior at Walsh Jesuit High School in Ohio, totaling just less than 1,500 yards receiving with 15 touchdowns. Decker caught 15 touchdown passes his senior year as well.

Last season, the Gophers had 16 touchdown receptions as a team.

But Tressel is confident Decker and Chambers will be just as good blocking for the running game as they will be running their routes.

“Both of those guys are very aggressive on the field,” Tressel said. “They will catch, block, run or do whatever we ask of them, and they will be aggressive doing so.”

And Gophers fans can expect Decker’s and Chambers’ progression to continue through spring and into summer, Payne said.

“I’m real confident in what we have,” Payne said. “Decker and Chambers are going to work real hard with Ernie and I in the summer to work on our hands and get the routes down so we can be fully prepared.”