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For Gophers, replacing receiver Chris Autman-Bell will take a village

Autman-Bell accounted for 23% of the Gophers’ targets through 3 weeks

NCAA Football: Colorado at Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell catches a 39-yard touchdown pass as Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Nikko Reed defends during a game Sept. 17, 2022, at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Matt Blewett / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — In 2017, Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca described Tyler Johnson as “a dude,” meaning a rare player who dominates regardless of circumstances.

Ciarrocca-coached receivers Corey Davis and Kenny Britt had previously been in this club, and Rashod Bateman would later reach this status.

Chris Autman-Bell was reaching this echelon. His play, leadership and work ethic are what makes the sixth-year senior’s season-ending leg injury suffered in last week’s 49-7 win over Colorado so difficult to swallow, Ciarrocca said.

“I definitely think Chris was approaching that type of category,” Ciarrocca said Wednesday. “He was really coming on. That is why your heart gets torn out for the young man.”

With Autman-Bell done, the Gophers will turn to a collection of pass catchers to fill the void, primarily receivers Dylan Wright, Michael Brown-Stephens and Daniel Jackson, and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford.

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“We told the guys that all the things he brought to the team … not one guy can replace him,” Ciarocca said. “But if everybody gets a little bit better, that’s how we have to replace him.”

During spring ball, Ciarrocca said he “felt like we had guys that were close to being good players, close to having that breakthrough moment where they become more consistent with it. I had seen each one of them individually make spectacular plays.”

Autman-Bell accounted for 23 percent of the Gophers’ targets through three weeks, a number that would have been higher if not for his injury in the first half Saturday and starters coming out in the second halves of each runaway win.

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Spann-Ford was No. 2 at 17 percent, Brown-Stephens at 14 percent and Wright at 12. Jackson has 3 percent of targets after not playing in the first two games with an ankle injury, but that share is expected to jump.

Each one of the Gophers’ top receiver has had a primary alignment through nonconference play, which can be boiled down to either slot or wide. Here’s a breakdown of where they lined up most often, per data from Pro Football Focus College:

Wide receiver:

  • Chris Autman-Bell: 86 percent of 132 snaps
  • Dylan Wright: 98 percent of 112 snaps
  • Daniel Jackson: 100 percent of 19 snaps
  • Le’Meke Brockington: 89 percent of 82 snaps
  • Ike White: 91 percent of 33 snaps

Slot receiver:

  • Michael Brown-Stephens: 69 percent of 140 snaps
  • Clay Geary: 91 percent of 75 snaps

Of all the top receivers, Ciarrocca moved Autman-Bell around the most, even that 14 percent in the slot was still a minority of the time. It also harkened to the versatility Autman-Bell possessed.
Brown-Stephens said earlier this season he feels more comfortable in the slot, and his team-high snaps show that feeling is reciprocated by U coaches.

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Ciarrocca showed he was trying to groom guys for bigger moments, including dialing up a downfield shot to Brockington during the 62-10 win over Western Illinois. Geary scored his first career touchdown against Colorado, and Wright had a stunning TD catch of his own against the Buffaloes.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan echoed the upcoming by-committee approach the Gophers will take to make up for the loss of Autman-Bell. He said he worked to establish chemistry by throwing to all receivers through winter, spring and summer workouts.

“It’s to build that trust with every single guy in that unit and they have trust in us to be able to distribute the ball for them,” Morgan said. “It’s over time continuing to do the same routes. Getting every route in the route tree, feeling confident in this guy’s ability and this guy feels confident delivering the ball to them. They got the reps in it. They’ve done it times and times again. That is what builds trust.”

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