MINNEAPOLIS For the second straight game, it appears as if the University of Minnesota football team will be without top wide receiver A.J. Barker, who is hampered by an ankle injury. Coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday it would take a "miracle" for Barker to be on the field Saturday against Illinois.
It will be a big loss for the Gophers if Barker can't go. Through nine games, Barker, a 6-foot-1 junior, far and away leads Minnesota in essentially every receiving category. His 30 catches are tops on the team and double that of the 15 catches by the team's No. 2 receiver, Isaac Fruechte. Barker has racked up 577 receiving yards, more than the next three receivers combined (564).
Barker is also the team's best deep threat. His longest catch of the year went for 63 yards and a touchdown. The next-longest catch by a Gophers receiver was a 40-yarder by sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts on Sept. 22 against Syracuse. Barker also has seven of Minnesota's 17 receiving touchdowns this year.
Simply put, that's a lot of production to make up for if Barker can't play against the Illini.
"He's a great receiver and he's definitely missed in our rotation," freshman quarterback Philip Nelson said. "But we've definitely got some other guys who can step up also. I have a lot of faith in all of our receivers, but A.J. is definitely a big loss right now."
So who will Nelson throw to with Barker on the sideline? Last Saturday against Michigan, his go-to target was receiver-turned-quarterback-turned-receiver MarQueis Gray, who had a team-high three catches for 27 yards. Junior Derrick Engel led Minnesota with 45 receiving yards on two catches, while Fruechte and K.J. Maye also both caught a pair of passes.
Crawford-Tufts is also could be a factor, having caught 11 passes for 137 yards this year, but he has yet to find the end zone in his two seasons at Minnesota. The former track star at Edina High School has the speed to be a deep threat, but his longest catch in the last two games was just four yards.
"A guy that we need to get going is Devin (Crawford-Tufts) a little bit because of his speed," Kill said Tuesday. "He's had some hamstrings and problems in the middle of the year and so forth. But we need to get Tufts going. I think there's no question about that."
Barker isn't the Gophers' only wide receiver to get banged up this year. Fruechte dealt with a concussion and didn't play against Wisconsin, but has since come back to play against both Purdue and Michigan. His season high for receptions in a game was three against Western Michigan, and he hasn't scored since the first Big Ten game against Iowa. Minnesota is hoping he can play a bigger role with Barker sidelined.
"Isaac's a young man that missed that game and has come back off a concussion situation, and we need to get him going," Kill said. "I don't think there's any question about that. I think him and Tufts both, they're both long and can run. But we have a whole group of them that we've got to keep working with them."
Engel, too, has been slowed up. The junior suffered a minor hamstring injury in Minnesota's loss to Michigan. He said he's "cautiously optimistic" that he'll be on the field Saturday.
If Engel is good to go, he knows that he, too, will have to shoulder some of the burden without Barker active.
"We knew as a unit we had to step up in that game, and we were going to miss his production," Engel said of the Michigan game. "That's got to come from somewhere else. I had 45 yards, and we had a couple other guys with a couple nice catches, but we've still got to be more effective and make bigger plays downfield to be successful. We just couldn't do that on Saturday."
Minnesota has other injuries to worry about as it prepares to face a reeling Illinois team on the road. Left tackle Ed Olson is still dealing with an ankle injury, and safety Derrick Wells is continue to progress after suffering a laceration on his leg.
But it's clear that the Gophers will miss Barker's production the most this weekend as they aim for their sixth win of the season.
"A.J. is the biggest concern," Kill said. "Unless a miracle takes place, so to speak, I don't look for him to be able to play on Saturday."
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