Summer Preview: NU Receivers, Superbacks
Year after year, despite all of the uncertainty that surrounds Northwestern football, one thing remains consistent: the receiving corps is the strength of the team. This year’s receiving corps goes beyond confirming this notion, perhaps being its deepest in program history.
One would think losing a 1,000-plus yard receiver in former Wildcat and current New England Patriot Jeremy Ebert would bring this unit down a few notches. ESPN’s Big Ten Blog did not seem to think so, ranking this unit the best in the Big Ten, before Kyle Prater was deemed eligible.
This is probably because of the fact that several ‘Cats with playing experience return, namely veteran and senior Demetrius Fields, who has played in every game since his redshirt freshman season and started 27 of those 39 games. Junior Rashad Lawrence has played in every game of his Northwestern career, starting in five games. Sophomore Tony Jones comes back from a redshirt year, sitting out because of injury after playing as a true freshman. Sophomore Christian Jones played in every game last year as a true freshman. Juniors Mike Jensen and Drew Moulton played primarily on special teams last season, but also saw some time at wideout. Collectively, this group hauled in 73 catches for 843 yards and four touchdowns last year, and that was without Tony Jones, as well as a rotating quarterback system. Additionally, quarterback Kain Colter played a lot of snaps as a receiver, taking away from the production of these players.
Perhaps the best news Northwestern coaches and fans received this offseason was the NCAA’s clearance of former five-star recruit Kyle Prater, allowing him to play this year despite just arriving from USC. Prater is huge, measuring in at a legitimate 6 feet 5 inches tall and 215 pounds. His frame means he will be a much-needed threat in the red zone, as the Wildcats ranked 10th in the conference last year in red zone offense, converting on only 77 percent of their chances. Another plus from Prater’s height is the ability he has to negate Colter’s lack of height; Colter will be able to throw shallow routes to him higher, reducing batted balls, a problem both Colter and Persa faced. Prater will also be able to stretch the field with deep routes, as Colter has been quoted comparing him to Detroit Lions superstar Calvin “Megatron” Johnson.
Another key change to the Wildcat receivers this year is the shift of both Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones from the outside to the slot. They both are big bodies (Fields is 6 feet tall, 210 pounds and Jones is 6 feet 3 inches tall, 225 pounds) that will also help compensate for Colter’s lack of height. As we have come to find out in the recent seasons, Northwestern slot receivers must master intermediate inward routes and seams, a la Jeremy Ebert the last two years and Zeke Markshausen three years ago. With two receivers taller than 6-feet tall, Colter will have an easier time seeing his slot receivers, and thus will be able to successfully get the ball to them.
One name that continues to come up as a breakout player out of the wide receivers is sophomore Tony Jones. Jones, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is a burner, and will provide speed on the outside. Colter has been singing his praises since the spring game, and has built great chemistry with him. As a matter of fact, Prater, Tony Jones and Colter will be living together this season, and should build even more chemistry that way.
Another name to look out for is redshirt freshman Cameron Dickerson. He is another big body (do you get what the theme of this year’s receivers is yet?) that coaches have been raving about. Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall spoke with Big Ten Network writer Tom Dienhart and said that Dickerson “is pretty good.” Dickerson had a great spring game, and is used to big time competition, since he played for New Jersey’s Bergen Catholic High School and faced perennial top-5 high school team Don Bosco prep every year.
While the wide receivers seem set and ready to go, the superback position is a totally different story. Gone is three-year starter and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Drake Dunsmore, who accounted for 45 catches, 522 yards and 6 touchdowns, and took home the Big Ten’s inaugural Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award. There is a bevy of superbacks fighting to take over the “Drake” role.
To me, it looks like the “Drake” role is down to three players: former quarterback and junior Evan Watkins, redshirt freshman Mark Szott and true freshman Dan Vitale. Both Watkins and Szott are coming off tough injuries, Watkins a hip injury and Szott a shoulder injury, and were not able to prove themselves during spring ball (although Szott participated in the non-contact 7-on-7 portion of the spring game). It seems to me that Watkins has a leg up because of his experience with the offense as a former quarterback. Northwestern’s offense requires route runners to read the linebackers and safeties, and break off their routes accordingly. Because he had to do that every pass play as a quarterback, that part of being a superback will not come as a challenge to Watkins, while it may be more difficult for the younger Szott. Apparently, he also has the hands to play the position.
Vitale is in the mix simply because he is closest to Dunsmore athletically. Vitale was a running back in high school, and carried the ball 276 times for 1,340 yards and 17 touchdowns while also recording 28 catches for 191 yards. He was projected by Scout.com to play defensive back at the collegiate level. Furthermore, starting guard Brian Mulroe said in Big Ten Media Day that Vitale has been really impressive in the weight room. If size appears to be a potential problem for Vitale, one needs to take into consideration that Dunsmore, who played as a true freshman, was listed at 6 feet 3 inches tall and 209 pounds while Vitale is currently listed on Northwestern’s website at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 220 pounds. Do not be surprised if Vitale makes an impact as a true freshman.
Other superbacks who could see some playing time are juniors Tim Riley and Brian Smith, with true freshman Jack Schwaba possibly sneaking into the rotation. Former linebacker Tim Riley will probably be used solely as a fullback in goal line situations, which was how he was used in the latter half of last season. Brian Smith, a former offensive lineman, will only be used as essentially a third offensive tackle in short-yardage and goal line situations, as he is still adjusting to his position change. Schwaba can take away snaps from Smith, and be used in the same way former superback (and current offensive lineman) Jack Konopka was used last year. Although he is much smaller than Konopka, Schwaba played in a run-oriented offense in high school, and was used primarily as a blocker. If he proves size won’t be an issue in camp, Schwaba could be used in rushing situations and be the reincarnation of Konopka or even Josh Rooks, another former Wildcat who played the blocking superback position as a true freshman.
Overall, do not expect much from the superbacks, at least this season, with the depth of the wide receivers demanding four-wideout sets for the majority of the games. Despite losing two key pass-catchers in Ebert and Dunsmore, this year’s receiving corps could be even more productive than last year’s. Running back Mike Trumpy’s return could also help this unit’s production, as he provides a dangerous tackle-to-tackle threat that will keep opposing defenses more honest, opening up the field to the already dangerous receiving corps. With the combination of size and depth, expect the receiving corps to help Colter throw for more yards than Persa did in either of his seasons as a starter, even though no receiver may catch for more than 1,000 yards.