Jones, Wolitarsky head group of raw wideouts

Minnesota will need its wide receivers to step up next year in order to compete.

Minnesota wide receiver Donovahn Jones executes practice drills at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex for spring practice on Tuesday afternoon. Jones played last season after Engel's injury and will be relied upon this fall.

Minnesota wide receiver Donovahn Jones executes practice drills at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex for spring practice on Tuesday afternoon. Jones played last season after Engel’s injury and will be relied upon this fall.

Jack Satzinger

At the start of the Gophers’ spring practice a few weeks ago, head coach Jerry Kill said his team’s offense will be much improved next season.

Mitch Leidner is the guy at quarterback after Philip Nelson’s transfer to Rutgers. David Cobb, fresh off a 1,000-yard rushing season, leads a loaded backfield. Maxx Williams and Drew Goodger return at tight end. And the offensive line boasts years of experience.

That can’t be said for the Gophers’ receivers, who are headed by a duo of talented but fairly inexperienced sophomores. Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said he thinks the receiver position needs to produce at a higher level if the program wants to take the next step.

“I think spring practice is a great time to gain experience,” Limegrover said. “And having guys like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones being able to go through spring … is a huge thing for kids like that.”

Jones played in 11 games last year as a true freshman, flashing his raw talent after moving from quarterback to receiver. He spent some time in the slot and often served as a weapon running the ball on jet sweep plays.

“If I was to run a 40-[yard dash] right now, I’d run a 4.4,” he said.

That speed and quickness manifested itself at times last season, and Jones was fifth on the team with 157 receiving yards. Still, something was missing in his first season in the maroon and gold — a touchdown.

“I want to get a touchdown this year,” he said. “That’s really the main goal.”

Wolitarsky also served as a viable weapon late in his first season on campus, and recorded a touchdown catch in the Texas Bowl.

That might be the reason Jones is so hungry to put six points on the board himself.

“There’s some conscious competition going on,” Wolitarsky said. “I feel like when one of us is doing well, the other one has to kind of step up.”

While the talented wideouts may not talk openly about competition, they both feel it in practice.

“We work on a lot of routes together,” Jones said. “That’s the way we get better.”

Both players have shown marked improvement from season’s end to now.

Jones goes toe-to-toe with cornerback Eric Murray — one of the Big Ten’s top cornerbacks — in practice and holds his own.

And Wolitarsky looks like he could be the reliable possession receiver next year now that he has a rapport with Leidner.

“I feel like me and Mitch’s connection has gotten a lot better,” Wolitarsky said. “I think it’s helpful having one quarterback, not switching them around.”

Leidner agreed.

“I feel much more comfortable and confident,” he said.

Though Jones and Wolitarsky may focus their competitive fire on each other, a group of young receivers could be hot on their heels. Melvin Holland Jr., Isaiah Gentry and Connor Krizancic all committed to play for Minnesota next season and will be looking for playing time next season.

That’s a good thing, according to Kill, who said he’s looking for his receivers to mature.

“If you have competition every day in practice then, you know, it’s going to carry over to the field in game day,” he said.

That could translate to success on the field for both receivers next season.

Wolitarsky said the two have “a good bond” and will need to produce if Minnesota wants to take the next step.

They’re working every day to make that a reality.

“The more you learn, the better you get, just like anything else in life,” Wolitarsky said. “There’s always room for
improvement.”