Our Big Ten previews in the rearview, we’ll take the next two weeks to preview every Northwestern position group.
Max Gelman takes us home, concluding the position previews with a look at the Wildcat wide receivers.
The Wildcats’ receiving corps will look markedly different in 2015. Kyle Prater and Tony Jones’ departures leave a sizeable hole on the outside and in the punt return game, but NU will be getting Christian Jones back after he sat out all of 2014 recovering from ACL surgery. Prater will be especially missed as he led the team last year with 51 catches and 535 receiving yards for two touchdowns. There is a dearth of experience when it comes to wide receivers – aside from Jones, no wideout currently on the roster has hauled in more than 24 passes in a season. As a whole, the receivers will likely be Northwestern’s worst offensive group of players. No one knows how Jones’s knee will hold up and without an experienced, every-down quarterback someone is going to have to step up. What the wide receivers lack in playing time they make up for in depth – coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Cats added five true freshmen wideouts to this year’s squad (compared to zero last season) and three transfers.
There is going to be huge competition among these players and they will feed off each other’s energy, driving their teammates to succeed. The probable starters, Cameron Dickerson, Miles Shuler and Christian Jones, are all seniors and know Fitzgerald’s system like the back of their hands, taking off some of the pressure of life after Prater. When Christian Jones was healthy, he improved every year. Now that he is back in the mix, Northwestern has sure-handed deep threat back in its arsenal.
Lack of experience is a big issue for the Northwestern receivers. Normally, a quarterback (or quarterbacks) who has only started one (or fewer) game in his career looks to veteran receivers in the passing game as they are the easiest to build chemistry with. With Prater and Jones having graduated and the greenness of Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson, questions abound for the Wildcats. Last season Northwestern was 88th out of 128 FBS schools in total receiving yards and 124th in yards per catch. It would be unsurprising to see the Wildcats rank similarly for the 2015 season.
After leading the Wildcats in catches and receiving yards in both 2012 and 2013, Jones suffered an ACL injury requiring surgery, which relegated him to the sideline for all of 2014. Easily the Wildcat with the most receiving experience, Jones will likely be force-fed the ball by whoever ends up starting at QB, especially near the end zone. Jones is the best receiving talent that the Wildcats have and will be playing with a chip on his shoulder, but he suffered a setback with his knee in April. He’s currently on track to start in the opener against Stanford, but it remains to be seen if he can stay on the field all season.
In a Sentence
Unless somebody steps up as a leader and go-to receiver, Northwestern could have another down year in store for its wideouts.