Thursday, March 27, 2014
Gophers hope for more Wolitarsky records
By Brian Bennett
In the history of California high school football, no player has ever caught more passes for more yards than current Minnesota sophomore Drew Wolitarsky.
Think about that for a second. These aren't high school records in Alaska or Wyoming. They're from one of the most populous, talent-rich states in the country. Wolitarsky broke the records held by Baltimore Ravens wideout Steve Smith, who could be heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With four catches for 94 yards and a touchdown, Minnesota's Drew Wolitarsky had a breakout game in the Texas Bowl vs. Syracuse.
So ... still think the Gophers lack talent at wide receiver? Of course, high school is high school, and Wolitarsky understands that.
"After high school, those records meant a lot to me," he told ESPN.com. "But once I got to college, it's time to forget about that and make a name for yourself at the next level. No one is really going to remember you from high school. They're going to say, 'Oh, that guy played really well in college and in the NFL.'"
He's working on becoming known for his performance in college, and the passing-game starved Gophers are counting on Wolitarsky taking the next step this season.
They threw him into the fire as a freshman last season, when Wolitarsky made four starts and caught 15 passes for 259 yards. That makes him Minnesota's leading returning wideout, just ahead of Donovahn Jones, another guy who played as a freshman in 2013. The youth at receiver and rotating door under center contributed to the team's passing problems last season, but Wolitarsky has seen improvement this spring with quarterback Mitch Leidner taking charge.
"We have a consistent quarterback now, one who we know is going to be the guy," he said. "So during the offseason, when we got together to throw with him and run all the routes, we didn't have to keep switching, keep wondering who was going to be the guy or who we should get closest with."
Wolitarsky didn't have to worry about those things in at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., where he starred for four years and maintained tight relationships with his quarterbacks. He finished with a record 281 catches and 5,148 yards in his career, and his 52 touchdowns are second-most in state history.
Despite those gaudy numbers, Wolitarsky's best in-state offers were from San Jose State and San Diego State. Arizona also recruited him. But few big-name programs came calling.
"It was a rough time at one point," he said. "I was pretty angry, pretty bitter. I don't really care any more because I chose a great school and am really happy with my choice. But it was frustrating."
Recruiting service scouting reports on Wolitarsky knocked him for his lack of top-end speed. Called him a possession receiver. He has heard it all before.
"A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed," he said. "If you can get open, you can play the position."
Minnesota doesn't dip its toes in California recruiting very often, but needed receivers and went hard after Wolitarsky. He said he fell in love with the campus and the city on his visit and that he liked the idea of trying to build something special under Jerry Kill's coaching staff.
Still, though Wolitarsky joked that he has "some Canadian blood" in him, adjusting to the harsh Minneapolis winters hasn't been easy on the Southern California native. He said he never even bothered to check the weather report back home, where it's almost always sunny. Now he does so every day.
"Having to wake up and put on three layers of clothes is a lot different," he said. "I'm used to putting on shorts and a T-shirt and being good for the whole day."
Last season proved to be an adjustment on the field, too, especially when going up against fast, physical cornerbacks such as Michigan State's in the season finale. But Wolitarsky, who at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds isn't easily bumped off his routes, gradually became more and more confident. In the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, he set career-bests with four catches for 94 yards and his first touchdown.
Ironically, though, for a guy who caught so many passes in high school, Wolitarsky's best-known play right now is a ball he didn't grab. Leidner threw a Hail Mary to the end zone in the waning seconds, and the potential game-winning touchdown bounced off Wolitarsky's hands.
"I try not to think about that," he said. "But a lot of people ask me about it. I just tell them, I couldn't see it. The DB was right over me. I couldn't see [the ball] coming in, but I just felt it hit my hands. And I was like, 'That's going to look bad on the big screen.' And then I looked and was like, 'Oh, gosh.'"
That's OK. Given his track record and ability, Wolitarsky will likely make many more big catches before his college career is over.