NCF Nation: Mario Manningham

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.

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten preseason has seemed downright boring compared to the rest of the country.

There's no Mark Sanchez or Ben Olson crisis in this league, and though Ohio State has endured a few recent off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes have nothing on Georgia. None of the four major quarterback competitions -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- are settled, and the one in Ann Arbor could drag on for some time. Wisconsin dismissed running back Lance Smith, but the Badgers remain well-stocked at the position.

If the first two weeks of preseason practice have revealed anything, it's that a position that seemed weak in the league could be much better than forecasted.

The Big Ten lost seven of its top 10 receivers from last season, a group that included three-time league receptions leader Dorien Bryant, big-play dynamo Devin Thomas, Indiana career receiving leader James Hardy and Michigan stars Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern, every Big Ten team entered camp with some degree of uneasiness about the wide receivers.

Michigan State and Indiana lost superstars. Michigan lost almost everybody. So did Purdue. Illinois and Minnesota needed second options. Iowa welcomed back several prominent pass-catchers from injuries. Wisconsin was very young at the position.

The anxiety level has dropped quite a bit.

Illinois, which will stress the pass more this fall, has produced several good candidates to complement Arrelious Benn, including juniors Jeff Cumberland and Chris Duvalt, sophomores Chris James and Alex Reavy and freshmen Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott. Highly touted Fred Smith will make an impact this fall at Michigan State, but he's been overshadowed a bit by classmate Keshawn Martin. Michigan's young wideouts impressed first-year coach Rich Rodriguez from the get-go, and the Wolverines will lean on players like Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Toney Clemons and Junior Hemingway come Aug. 30.

I was extremely impressed after watching Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath, a big-play threat with tremendous speed. Though I didn't see Purdue practice after media day, junior-college transfer Arsenio Curry certainly looks like he can contribute alongside Greg Orton. Playmaker Andy Brodell is back in the fold at Iowa, and sophomore Colin Sandeman looks to be pushing incumbent Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the starting job. Ray Fisher and Andrew Means headline a group of Indiana wideouts that also include some promising freshmen.

There has been so much buzz about the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten. It looks like the league will have the moving parts to make those schemes work this fall.

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