GRAND FORKS, N.D. - When the dozen Fighting Sioux wide receivers in spring camp hit the practice field, they know one thing for certain - the man giving them instructions has literally been in their shoes.
Former Sioux wideout Luke Schleusner has moved into the role of coaching those 12 players after spending his first season back at his alma mater coaching the tight ends and fullbacks.
The fact Schleusner has been one of them has definitely helped a group that is made up of five players with UND game experience and seven redshirt freshman.
"This is a really important spring for this group," Schleusner said. "For seven of these guys, it is really their first shot at playing. We have a quarterback competition going on too, so it's important for the receivers to play well."
The five veterans Schleusner has to work with all played key roles last season during the team's run to a Great West Conference Co-Championship. They all caught at least one touchdown pass during the campaign and have made breaking in the new guys a much easier task for Schleusner.
"This has been a fun bunch to work with," Schleusner said. "They come to work hard and get better every day."
The player with the most catches in the group is reigning All-Great West first team honoree Greg Hardin (Bellevue, Neb.). He had team highs of 43 catches, 549 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns last season before missing the final two games of the season.
Hardin is flanked by R.J. McGill (Phoenix, Ariz.), who emerged as a viable target for the Sioux quarterbacks last season. He ranked second behind Hardin in receptions (34) and receiving yards (433) and caught his first career touchdown against Montana Western.
"Greg and R.J. have been great leaders for this group," Schleusner said. "They have been professional day-in and day-out and are both playing at a really high-level this spring. I expect them to make a lot of big plays for us next season as they continue to mature."
Schleusner says the real battle for playing time is behind Hardin and McGill and that starts with the remaining veteran trio.
"Blair Townsend (Coon Rapids, Minn.), Tyrhe Ivery (Garland, Texas) and Jon Heimler (Colfax, Wis.) all made big catches for us in the last couple of games and they can build on that," Schleusner said.
Townsend had a strong finish to his sophomore season after fully recovering from an injury that cost him his redshirt campaign in 2010. He had 13 catches for 129 yards and two scores with a majority of that production coming in the last four games (11 catches for 115 yards).
Ivery also really came out late during his redshirt freshman season, collecting all 14 of his receptions in the final three games. He saved his best effort for the finale against South Dakota when No. 1 caught eight passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns as UND rallied from 20 points down in the fourth quarter.
Heimler made only catch during the season, but it was timely and ended up providing the margin of victory in a 14-7 triump at UC Davis. His 9-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter put the visitors ahead by two scores.
Schleusner needs a couple of the redshirt freshman to emerge as key contributors as well in 2012. Jameer Jackson (Brooklyn Park, Minn.) provides a physical presence at 6-foot-3, 233 pounds. Casey Young (Aurora, Colo.) has also had a steady spring for the unit.
A pleasant surprise has been Pat Brown (North Pole, Alaska), who closed out Wednesday's practice session with a 20-yard touchdown reception in the back of the end zone.
Here is a breakdown at the 12 wide receivers in spring drills:
1 Tyrhe Ivery, So. - 14 receptions, 116 yards, 2 TDs
5 R.J. McGill, Jr. - 34 receptions, 433 yards, 1 TD
20 Ramon Bridges, RFr. - Redshirted
24 Jay Daggett, RFr. - Redshirted
80 Jon Heimler, Sr. - 1 reception, 9 yards, 1 TD
82 Pat Brown, RFr. - Redshirted
83 Jameer Jackson, RFr. - Redshirted
84 Greg Hardin, Jr. - 43 receptions, 549 yards, 3 TDs
86 Blair Townsend, Jr. - 13 receptions, 129 yards, 2 TDs
87 Casey Young, RFr. - Redshirted
88 T.J. Draeger, RFr. - Redshirted
89 Marco Barrientos, RFr. - Redshirted
Practice Notes: Head coach Chris Mussman was much more pleased with the effort by the offense after a sluggish outing on Monday ... "The offense did a much better job from start to finish today," he said ... The two-hour session closed with 10 minutes of live work that saw the first, second and third units all get one possession from the 40-yard line going in ... The first-team defense held the first-team offense to a three-and-out, but both the second and third-team offenses scored touchdowns ... Sophomore Adam Shaugabay (Warroad, Minn.) capped a six-play scoring drive by the second unit with a two-yard touchdown run ... Shaugabay also had runs of 12 and three yards on the possession ... Senior Braden Hanson (Charlotte, N.C.) only had to make one throw during the drive, connecting on a 10-yard slant pass to Jon Heimler ... Marcus Hendrickson (Perham, Minn.) connected with Pat Brown on two pass completions during the drive by the third unit ... He used his legs to avoid the rush on the first one that went for about eight yards before the two ended the session as Brown made a diving catch in the back of the end zone from 20 yards out ... The team opened the practice with its usual "Block Party" work on special teams ... The unit led the FCS last season with 10 blocked kicks (all field goals) ... Redshirt freshman B.J. Fifita (Lawndale, Calif.) made a tremendous diving interception in skelly work that brought a lot of loud cheers from the defense ... Classmate Jameer Jackson (Brooklyn Park, Minn.) returned the favor later in the session with a nice diving snag over the middle.