Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Camp Battles: Wide Receiver

Calling the competition for time at wide receiver a battle would presume there is enough depth on the Gophers football roster to pick and choose. The ugly fact is the Gophers are woefully thin at the position.

For a Glen Mason team, this likely would have been no big deal, as the run-first, second and third offense would have survived. But with Mike Dunbar's spread offense taking over, the lack of talent at the wide receiver position poses a significant problem. There seem to be two sure things for the Gophers, though even that's a generous statement.

Senior wide receiver Ernie Wheelright would be one of those 'sure things.' But he has been different things at different times. He's flashed talent. He's looked lost. He's dropped passes. And he's your 2007 go-to receiver in the new spread offense. Here's what STrib beat writer Chip Scoggins wrote about Wheelright:

A starter since his freshman season in 2004, Wheelwright has spanned the spectrum. He's been good, bad and indifferent. He's been a star, a mystery and a tease. His first three career receptions went for touchdowns, and he's dropped more balls than anybody this side of Troy Williamson.
Well written and completely true. In his junior season, Wheelright was relatively ignored in Mason's offense. He grabbed 26 passes for 437 yards, a modest total for a receiver who at times shows tremendous talent and stands at 6'5. For the Gophers to be able to withstand the lack of depth behind Wheelright, he'll need to drop fewer passes and be a leader amongst a host of youngsters. There is no reason Wheelright can't be one of the best wide receivers in the conference.

The number two wideout slot also seems to be set with sophomore Eric Decker. Decker redshirted in 2005 and played as well as Wheelright did last year. He grabbed the same amount of passes--26 for 378--while starting just three games. Decker looked good when he had the opportunity last year, and reports out of camp have him locked into a starting spot.

Decker's career started off on what was surely an unforgettable note for the wideout. He grabbed a 39-yard touchdown pass during the season opener against Kent State--his first college touchdown and reception. Decker has the athleticism to be a decent receiver in the Big 10. A Wheelright-Decker combination could be much worse. But the questions start with what comes after the big two.

Scoggins reported on his blog that the presumed number three wide receiver, sophomore Mike Chambers, has been moved to cornerback--another problem area for the 2007 Gophers. After Wheelright and Decker, Chambers was the only wide receiver on the roster to have caught a pass--19 to be exact--in 2006. Assuming Chambers stays in the secondary, that will leave a host of unprovens to battle for multiple spots in Dunbar's spread.

Marc Cheatham, a JUCO transfer from Oakland's Laney College, should have every chance to nail down one of those spots. Brewster has said publicly that he won't sign JUCO kids unless they fill a specific need. Cheatham would seem to be in that category. He stood out in Oakland, averaging more than 18 yards per catch. This FOX Sports Gophers preview suggests Cheatham could be a big-time playmaker and could emerge as the Gophers' number two option.

After Cheatham it's anybody's guess. Scoggins makes that point clear in another article.
Don't be surprised if four or more true freshmen receivers see action right away. That group includes Tray Herndon, Harold Howell, Ralph Spry and Damien White. It's certainly not an ideal situation, but the Gophers have little choice at this point.
Best case scenario for the maroon and gold would have Wheelright be a go-to guy all season, Decker emerge as a consistent possession receiver, Cheatham be a competent third option and have one or two of the freshman step up and prove they can compete at the Big 10 level. Anything less than that and the Gophers' first season in the spread might be difficult to watch.


WWWWWW said...

When I played NCAA 07 with the Gophers, Wheelwright was an All-American, so I don't think there's anything to worry about here.

DocArnold said...

As I said at another site, imagine the two-back shotgun formation; Pinnix and Bennett in the backfield, Thomas in the slot or Simmons at TE; Wheels and Decker wide. Not that easy to cover. Sub in Spry, Herndon, Cheatham, White or Thompson when wideouts or slot need a breather. If they shut down the run, do they leave the TE open? Single coverage on Decker? It's going to be a better offense than most people realize right now.

PJS said...

That does sound good, Doc. But it's not that rosy. Weber is going to have to learn and get comfortable. Decker and Wheels are going to have to step up and at least one more wideout, more likely two, need to emerge.

I didn't address tight end here, but we should be OK there with Simmons, and Brewster's experience coaching that position.

But I do like the idea of Pinnix and Bennett on opposite sides of an athletic Weber.