Last season, the Big Ten’s top-ranked passing offense from 2011 was supposed to take off in full flight. Demetrius Fields would soar in his senior season. Tony Jones would return from a knee injury to provide the deep threat Northwestern needed. Kyle Prater would take the top off defenses with exquisite athletic talents. Northwestern’s receiving corps wasn’t just going to be the best in the Big Ten. It was going to be one of the best in school history, period.
Somewhere between the post-spring practice hype and the Wildcats’ season-opener at Syracuse, a strange thing happened. Northwestern deemphasized its biggest personnel strength. This wasn’t going to be a pass-first offense, one that would set program and conference records.
No, Northwestern’s spread attack was geared toward something completely different: the option. That meant fewer pass plays and fewer targets for receivers.
“Not at all,” Jones said Saturday when asked if he was bothered by the shift in offensive focus. “The goal at the end of the day was to win ball games. As long as we were winning everything was all good.”
Many of last season’s familiar offensive parts return. Running back Venric Mark is back after a breakout season. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian will look to find a healthier balance. The receiving corps is intact, for the most part – except for one major omission. Fields, the Wildcats’ humble leader, has moved on.
There’s a new leader guiding the receiving corps this season, and he’s nothing at all like the quiet veteran who graduated this offseason. “Rashad [Lawrence],” Jones said without hesitation when asked to identify who has stepped to lead the receivers this spring. “He’s done a great job growing as a leader, so he’s someone we all look up to.”
Sporting an Under Armour Wildcats track suit at practice Saturday, Lawrence stood and watched his receivers run through seven-on-seven drills. He clapped and playfully jawed and preened and smiled the biggest of smiles and rarely, if ever, went completely quiet. Lawrence was the central node around which the Wildcats generally up-beat vibe revolved. From afar, his demeanor screams playful goofball, or locker room prankster, or some jovial combination therein, and Coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted that’s not totally inaccurate.
“’Shad’s a little bit of a different personality, a little bit more loose,” Fitzgerald told reporters after practice Saturday. “He likes to dance.” To be clear, when it comes to the games, the real, actual, time-to-line-up-and-run-routes intensity of Fall Saturdays, Lawrence flips the switch and focuses on the task at hand. That’s what makes his fun personality, and his knowledge of when jokes and sideline two-stepping are passable and when they’re not, a character dynamic you don’t often see in leaders.
“He does the little things,” Jones said. “Watching film, extra lifts, extra workouts. He also makes sure we [the receivers] spend time off the field together. That’s been really big for us.”
One of the other wideouts turning heads this spring is Christian Jones, a player Fitzgerald was downright hyperbolic in praising after another strong workout Saturday. Jones is one of the few players to have suited up his true freshman season, and after finishing with just 16 receptions for 195 yards in 2011, Jones saw his numbers more than double (35 receptions, 412 yards) across the board – in a season where, as mentioned above, Northwestern wasn’t all that eager to throw the ball.
The most impressive part about Jones’ rapid rise? He had Fitzgerald – the self-proclaimed “zero-star” recruit who treats general .com scouting services with stern disdain – talking recruiting rankings.
“They don’t hand out top-100 player in Texas to just anybody,” Fitzgerald said, in reference to Jones’ consensus top-100 status in Texas’s pool of players in the class of 2011. “He’s got a bright future in the game. I’m really encouraged by the job he’s doing.”
The two Joneses, Christian and Tony, look fresher than ever, Lawrence continues to improve (both on and off the field) and younger guys like Cameron Dickerson, Pierre Youngblood-Ary and Mike McHugh put more and more pressure on the upperclassmen to get better with each passing practice. Of all the returning talent at wideout – and there is plenty, to be sure – one long overlooked player, Mike Jensen, has turned this spring into his personal showcase.
In fact, Fitzgerald was willing to go as far as to call Jensen the most valuable player on offense this spring.
“He’s a guy that walked on, that’s been a blue collar, lunch pail, special teams, dig-the-ditch kind of guy,” Fitzgerald said. “If I were to give an MVP offensively after the first three weeks of spring, it would have to be Michael.”
Besides Christian Jones, the group should bear great resemblance to last year’s highly-touted cast of pass-catchers. To little fault of their own, the production never met the hype last season; the Wildcats finished 12th among Big Ten teams with 169.1 pass yards per game, and had just one receiver (Christian Jones) rank among the league’s top 30 pass catchers.
The focus on offense should remain relatively constant. Colter and Mark will run the option, Siemian will handle the lions share of passing responsibilities and the Wildcats will operate another efficient spread attack. That could mean another year of reduced passing attempts. Tony Jones believes he and his teammates are content with whatever offensive direction Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff decides to employ.
Winning, and continuing this program’s upward progression, is what’s important.
“I don’t have any individual goals,” Jones said. “Just to make it to Indianapolis and on to Pasadena.”
The receivers are willing to explore whatever means necessary to make this season a special one. Throw passing stats and individual accolades out the window. These guys are focused on the big picture.