Northwestern Wide Receivers Preview

WNUR Sports Online Content Director Cameron Songer (@CameronSonger) takes a look at Northwestern’s wide receiver corps, a group with a lot of potential for a breakout season.

Northwestern’s offense is not known for its passing. The Wildcats finished in a tie for ninth in the Big Ten in passing yards last season and 110th in the country, behind Texas State and a 1-11 Colorado team.

That’s not a way of saying that Northwestern’s wide receivers are bad. The simple fact is that the Wildcats are a run-first team. A great deal of the value for Northwestern’s wide receivers comes from their ability to block for the run. Of course, it’s hard to quantify blocking in statistics the way you can look at receiving TDs and yards, so the picture from statistics is far from complete.

Many of Northwestern’s offensive units will have most of the key players coming back in 2013, and the wide receiver corps is no exception. Of all players who had more than three receptions, the only player not returning is Demetrius Fields. Fields was a solid player for four years for Northwestern, missing just a few games in his four-year career, but he never had a breakout season or spectacular stretch. His production, in terms of receptions and yards in 2012, equaled about 15 percent of Northwestern’s pass offense.

I’ll do the math for you: that means 85 percent of Northwestern’s receiving production is back, including the top three receivers (Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Rashad Lawrence). Toss in two guys who were redshirt freshmen last year but enter their third year in the program (Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary), and this is a deep group with a lot of potential.

While senior Rashad Lawrence appears to be the emotional leader of the wide receiver group, junior Christian Jones is probably the most talented.

Christian Jones celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the first half of the 2012 opener at Syracuse. Andrew Renneisen / The Daily Orange

Christian Jones celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the first half of the 2012 opener at Syracuse. Andrew Renneisen / The Daily Orange

He led the 2012 ‘Cats in receiving yards and uses his 6’3”, 225-pound frame to catch almost anything thrown in his direction.

One of the few questions in this group is what the team can expect from Kyle Prater. The junior transferred to Northwestern prior to the spring of 2012 and was granted permission to play right away. The former USC Trojan was an All-American in high school but caught just 10 passes last season. At 6’5” and 215 pounds, he has physical gifts most players could only dream of. Fans might have had unrealistically high expectations for him last year, and since he missed spring practice with an injury, it’s unclear how he has progressed in the offense. Only time will tell whether Prater will become an impact player on this squad, but his size dictates that he’s worth keeping on the field as a run blocker, at least.

If you take a lot of stock in spring practices, it’s worth noting that Mike Jensen, a former walk-on, impressed coaches with his work ethic. The 6-foot senior has just four career catches, but will make the most of any opportunity he gets in his final season in Evanston. Going back to Northwestern’s last spring game (in 2012), Cameron Dickerson proved that he doesn’t need shoes to score touchdowns.

The incoming freshman class features a pair of ESPN three-star recruits in Macan Wilson and Matthew Harris. Judging by the fact that Northwestern redshirted all of its incoming freshman last year and all but one (Christian Jones) the year before that, I’m guessing we won’t hear from these guys on the playing field in 2013.

Bottom line: even if one or two of the top receivers miss some time with injuries, the group as a whole is deep enough to avoid a major dropoff. As long as Venric Mark and Kain Colter are in Evanston, Northwestern will be a run-first team. Those two will claim most of the attention, but expect to see a steady but quiet improvement in the Wildcats’ passing game thanks to an experienced trio of receivers (Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Rashad Lawrence) and some new faces.

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