For all of the questions surrounding who will be under center for Northwestern this fall, the group of guys catching the passes may be an even more unknown group.
The wide receivers are one of the position groups that were hurt most in the off season with the losses of their top two targets from last year, Kyle Prater and Tony Jones. And with these two gone off of a group that really struggled even with them last year, the Wildcats could be in for another very rough showing from their receivers.
With only a few returning starters and a lot of unknowns and incoming freshman, the depth chart at wide receiver may be one of the most fluid heading into camp.
Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson highlight the returning starters, and with Jones and Dickerson both coming off of injuries, its hard to predict at this point what we’re going to see from them. Jones has top-receiver potential, but has struggled to stay healthy and Dickerson has the physical build for the role, but has a bad habit of dropping passes. Both will likely be thrown into bigger roles by necessity alone.
But spots are no doubt going to be up for grabs, and guys like Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary are going to have opportunities in camp to vie for a bigger role in the offense.
These questions are all underlined by the uncertainty at quarterback, which was covered in last week’s positional preview. Because none of these guys are proven, consistent big-play receivers, their success will live and die by the quarterback’s ability to get the ball to the right spot and make plays.
This could also play into coach Pat Fitzgerald’s decision at quarterback. With so many questions surrounding how much production they could even have through the air, he may opt to go with someone like Matt Alviti, who could keep defenses off balance with his legs when there is nothing available down field. Alviti’s ability to run could also create opportunities for receivers if he can become a threat.
While Northwestern will likely depend primarily on the running backs on offense, an ineffective passing game will hinder their ability to run the ball. If they are not able to be a threat down field and keep linebackers and defensive backs on their heels, they are going to have a very hard time moving the ball and scoring on offense. Only truly elite wide receivers are able to compensate for or overcome weak quarterbacking or offensive line play, and it doesn’t appear Northwestern has any of those on their roster as of now. The best they can hope for is a balanced attack and it is unclear if they have the personnel or the talent right now to do that.
The best they can hope for at this point is to find the best combinations in camp, and that will be on Fitz and the coaching staff. They’ll need to evaluate which quarterback has the best feel for the offense, and based on that, see which receivers find the most chemistry with that quarterback. And since the three guys competing for the quarterback job are so different, it opens the door for any one of these receivers to step into a larger role.
Player to Watch: Christian Jones
The big question is whether or not Jones will be healthy and able to return to form from two seasons ago. Jones missed all of last season with an ACL injury and has had lingering knee issues since then. Jones is #1 receiver material but it is yet to be seen if he can live up to that potential. His health will be one of, if not the most important factors when it comes to the success of the receiving corps in this offense.
In 2013, Jones led the team with 668 yards and 4 touchdowns in a season that was capped off by a 182 yard, two touchdown game in a win against Illinois in the last game of the season.
If he can get back to that kind of production, he could be a very dangerous offensive threat.