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Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Decker's production, toughness spurs Gophers


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire
 Eric Decker is a weapon for the Gophers with and without the ball.

Eric Decker's mom probably doesn't love the line, but among football guys, it's one of the highest compliments a player can receive.

Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster could easily gush about Decker's receiving statistics. The junior leads the nation in receiving yards (696) and ranks second in receptions (50) on a much-improved Golden Gophers team. But Brewster would much rather talk about Decker's blocking ability and willingness to take on contact, two qualities many wide receivers lack, even the best ones.

"The biggest thing is he is one tough hombre, man," Brewster said. "He is a tough sucker."

When informed of Brewster's quote after Tuesday's practice, Decker laughed.

"Especially coming from him, with his mentality and his attitude, definitely a compliment," he said.

Decker might be the nation's best receiver no one's heard about. He ranked fourth in the Big Ten in receiving average last year, behind NFL draft picks Mario Manningham, Devin Thomas and James Hardy, despite playing for a team that finished 1-11.

After missing spring practice to play for Minnesota's baseball team, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior has continued to produce at a high rate. He's on pace for 100 receptions this season, making nine or more catches in three of the Gophers' six games this year.

Last week, Decker tied a school record with 13 catches and had the third-highest receiving yards total (190) in school history as Minnesota beat Indiana, 16-7.

"He's one of those guys, as a coach, you appreciate watching how he plays," Indiana coach Bill Lynch said. "He just makes plays and he's tough. He got dinged up last week against us and just kept coming back at us and making more plays."

In the fourth quarter, Decker got sandwiched between Indiana linebackers Will Patterson and Geno Johnson in a vicious collision. But he got up and staggered to the sideline before returning to the game.

"I got the least of the brunt of the hit," Decker said. "The two Indiana guys actually hit helmets and one guy was actually knocked out for a while. I just got dizzy and was out for maybe five minutes. When I got back in, I was fine."

As a slot receiver, Decker has grown accustomed to taking on contact. When he first arrived on campus, he learned how to crack block linebackers, a skill he hadn't had to use at Rocori High School, which ran a spread offense similar to the system Minnesota currently uses.

The blocking drills are paying off this season.

"I could put together a blocking tape that would absolutely blow your mind," Brewster said. "The pride that he takes on every possession, on every snap, is just amazing. ... We emphasize in our running game our receiver blocking, as far as the explosive runs are concerned. And most of our explosive runs are a result of Eric Decker down the field blocking."

Brewster called Decker "an inspiration" and likened him to former Denver Broncos standout Ed McCaffrey, known for his ability to take hits in the middle of the field. The difference, Brewster said, is Decker's speed.

"It's a very similar type of receiver: very fearless, outstanding hands, concentration," said Brewster, a Broncos assistant in 2005-06. "McCaffrey was a blocker, too."

Decker will need all his skills at work Saturday when he and the Gophers visit Illinois (ESPN, noon ET). The Illini likely will stick star cornerback Vontae Davis on Decker, much like Ohio State did two weeks ago with All-American Malcolm Jenkins.

Ohio State was the first team that geared its coverage scheme toward stopping Decker. He finished with season lows in receptions (5) and yards (52) in a loss to the Buckeyes, but he looks forward to facing another NFL-caliber cornerback.

"I definitely expect Vontae to move around and do more coverage on myself, so it will be a good matchup to see where I stand with guys like him," Decker said. "It would be a great measuring stick."

Decker's continued success on the gridiron would seem to steer him toward an NFL career, but he isn't ruling out baseball just yet. He hit .329 for the Gophers baseball team this spring and was a 39th-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Baseball gave Decker's body a break from football while maintaining his mental edge for competition. He returned to practice refreshed this summer and has strengthened his on-field bond with quarterback Adam Weber, with whom he now shares a house off campus.

"Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, we're sitting in the house just going over film and talking about what the defense gives us, their weaknesses and where we can exploit and make some big plays," Decker said. "That's definitely helped on the field."