Gophers receivers learn on job

Murali Balaji

The Gophers rediscovered their passing game against Ohio State, an indication that the team hopes to rely on quarterback Andy Persby and his corps of wide receivers to keep the chains moving against some of the Big Ten’s tougher defenses.
The receiving corps is talented, but has yet to develop the consistency needed to ascend into one of the best in the conference. Junior Luke Leverson has stepped up this season and has played well as the team’s lead receiver.
However, the indefinite loss of freshman Jermaine Mays to questions on his academic standing weakens the group’s ability to spread the defense with speed. This unit will take some time to mesh, but the promise that has been exhibited thus far could be an indication of better things to come.
Luke Leverson
Junior receiver
6-foot, 175 lbs.
Leverson’s development into one of the top receivers in the Big Ten came at a time when the team needed a veteran presence at the position. He leads the team in receptions (38 catches for 508 yards), and touchdowns (5), and is the team’s primary punt returner.
Leverson isn’t a flashy playmaker, but his consistency is essential to a unit that has produced erratically all season. He has a knack for getting open, and offensive coordinator Steve Loney likes using Leverson on short routes where he doesn’t need to outrun opposing defensive backs.
The knock on Leverson is his lack of size and true breakaway speed. He isn’t a physical receiver, and his inability to break from bump-and-run coverage is a major weak spot in his game right now. With added strength and bulk, Leverson should continue his ascendence into a top receiver.
Ron Johnson
Freshman receiver
6-foot-3, 200 lbs.
Johnson, a true freshman from Detroit, earned the other starting receiver spot after a strong training camp. He is second on the team with 18 receptions, and is tied for second on the team in touchdowns (2).
Johnson has had his share of highs and lows through the first six games of the season, and his development into a complementary receiver will be key for the Gopher offense. His biggest asset is his natural size, something that the receiving corps has lacked in recent years.
At 6-foot-3, Johnson is a specialist at running fade and post patterns which allow him to use his size to beat opposing defensive backs. However, he lacks speed (4.6 in the 40), and is not where the team wants him to be in strength and conditioning. He is still learning technique as far as route running and blocking is concerned, but Johnson’s raw talent has helped him stay on the field for the majority of the team’s offensive plays.
Antoine Henderson
Sophomore receiver
5-foot-7, 160 lbs.
Henderson switched over from running back prior to the season, and the move is finally beginning to pay off for the Gophers. He has nine receptions for 84 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown catch against Ohio State.
Henderson is a speed receiver, and his emergence in the offense comes at a time when Mays’s prospects of returning this season remain in question. Henderson is still very raw, but as the third receiver, he often lines up in the slot against opposing safeties or nickelbacks.
His lack of size is obviously a major concern, but in recent weeks, Henderson has been used on patterns where he can utilize his 4.3 speed against slower defensive backs.
Henderson is still very raw, and he needs to work on his pass receiving skills in order to be a more integral part of the offense. However, his progress in the No. 3 receiver role is promising for a team that is desperately seeking a consistent deep threat.
Alex Haas
Junior tight end
6-foot-5, 270 lbs.
Haas is the team’s primary tight end, and he has started all but one game this season. He is not a pass catcher, but he plays an important role in the offense as an extra run-blocking lineman.
There have been occasions where he has run deep seam routes, and on the replays, he is usually the only one left wide open. So far, the Gophers have not capitalized on his abilities as a pass catcher, but Haas could see more balls coming his way as the season progresses.
He doesn’t have much experience as a pass receiver, but if he can be worked in more with the passing game, Haas could provide a big target for Persby.
Ryan Keller
Sophomore receiver
6-foot-2, 195 lbs.
Keller entered camp as the team’s No. 3 quarterback, but his inability to pick up the offense, as well as his athletic skills, made the move to wide receiver the logical option for the coaching staff.
Keller has seen increased playing time in the offense over the last few weeks, and despite his lack of production (only two catches), it seems as if he is slowly emerging as the fourth receiver on offense.
Keller’s quarterback skills have also come in handy. Against Purdue, he threw a 52-yard touchdown to Leverson on a wide receiver option, which was the longest pass play the Gophers completed this season.
Keller is a lanky but fluid player who is still getting a feel for the position. His biggest adjustment has been to play physically when the ball is snapped, but it seems as if the move to receiver is a long-term project for the Gophers’ coaches.

Others: Elvin Jones, freshman receiver; 6-foot-4, 213 lbs. Zach Vevea, freshman tight end; 6-foot-6, 253 lbs.