The choice is up to Rashad Still. At least that’s what Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck would have you believing.
When the Gophers’ spring game wrapped up, Fleck made it clear that he was going to utilize the team’s top returning receiver. Like it or not, the football is going to thrown in Still’s direction. A lot.
“He has to be a bell cow,” Fleck said. “There isn’t like, ‘Well, if I develop, maybe they’ll throw me the ball.’ We’re gonna throw that guy the ball. We’re gonna throw him— I mean, (No.) 88 will get the football. And, I told him earlier in the week, I said, ‘You can either handle this like a mature man and understand what I’m telling you, that you are going to get the ball and stop working, or you know you’re gonna get the football and you change your best and become one of the best wide receivers in the B1G.”
Targeting Still more frequently isn’t an unusual expectation. The junior stands 6-foot-5 and has shown the ability to be a big-time player in small sample sizes. But transforming a player who had just 18 catches – none of which resulted in a touchdown – into one of the top receivers in the B1G?
Just take a look at Still’s stat line from his first two years in Minneapolis. It’s not hard to see that Fleck’s expectations might be a little ambitious, even for the energetic and enthusiastic head coach:
|Yards per catch||?||19.4||10.8|
To be fair, the underwhelming numbers produced by Still during his first two seasons are hardly a reflection of his ability. It’s a combination of the offensive schemes implemented by Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys – both run-heavy guys – and the accuracy issues that quarterback Mitch Leidner struggled with throughout his career.
Still will have more opportunities in his junior season, for sure. Fleck’s offense – at least what we saw at Western Michigan – brings the type of flare that Minnesota hasn’t seen in quite some time. The Gophers are going to open up the field with the passing attack and won’t be afraid to strike deep downfield. It’s sure bet that Still’s numbers are going to rise – probably even double – in this offense.
But…one of the best in the B1G? That still seems like wishful thinking.
If anyone can transform a player, though, it’s Fleck. The proof is in the pudding.
Corey Davis was a two-star prospect when he signed with Western Michigan in 2013. He was ranked No. 308 among wide receivers in his class and 247 Sports didn’t give him a national ranking. Sure, those type of recruits commonly become key contributors for solid MAC programs. But to say it was unlikely for Davis to blossom into a national phenomenon would be an understatement.
That changed quickly, though. Davis had an immediate impact in his freshman season with the Broncos, catching 67 passes for 941 yards and six touchdowns. He was Western Michigan’s top receiver and racked up the third-highest yardage total in the MAC.
In the matter of a few months, Fleck had developed a two-star recruit into one of the top receivers in the conference. And Davis’ production continued to grow.
Each of the next three seasons, Davis eclipsed 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns. He led the MAC in receiving all three years and was in the top 10 nationally, as well. In his final season, he finished with 1,500 yards and an NCAA-best 19 touchdowns to round out his career.
|Yards per catch||15.5||15.9||18.1||14.0||15.8|
Thanks to those big numbers, Davis was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. He was taken fifth overall by the Tennessee Titans. Fleck’s system and his commitment to getting the ball into the hands of his top playmaker paid off for the former two-star prospect.
Still is going to have that same opportunity.
It’s hard to say that Still is going to be the next Davis, though you could certainly make that comparison if you’d like. There are a lot of rotating parts. And, even with Fleck implementing a new system that will play to his strengths, Still’s production might remain a little out of his control.
Minnesota is ushering in a new quarterback after Leidner’s departure. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because of Fleck’s pass-friendly attack, the current battlers for the starting job, Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, have extremely limited experience. That could be an issue, particularly early in the season – though it didn’t seem to be a problem in Minnesota’s spring game.
The offensive line still has some question marks heading into the season and depth is a concern. Pair that with a new quarterback and the Gophers could have some trouble throwing the football.
And, on the positive side, Minnesota does have a pair of really talented running backs in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Still isn’t the only player on the roster with big playmaking ability, so the ball is probably going to be distributed pretty evenly amongst the three.
But Still will have the opportunity to expand his role. The years of hauling in just 18 catches should be well behind him. If you believe Fleck, there’s no question he’ll target is tall-bodied receiver frequently.
Becoming one of the top receivers in the B1G is a pretty lofty goal. But Fleck has proven he can turn two-star talent into an NFL first rounder.
Whether or not Still follows suit is depends on his mindset. At least that’s the case if you ask his head coach.