Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Jun 24, 2013

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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Year one of the Kyle Prater experiment is officially in the books. With the distance of five post-bowl months to wipe away the echoes of a hugely successful season, one Prater played a disturbingly small part in, it’s safe to say the results didn’t come anywhere near meeting the expectations stoked upon his transfer to NU last year. These expectations were totally rational: Prater was a former five star recruit, the top receiver in the 2010 class according to Rivals, an athletic freak blessed with the height and size and coordination to instantly launch Northwestern’s passing game to new heights.

Even a conservative expectation for Prater’s first season would have projected a productive if slightly disappointing first season. He was the best receiver his age, playing in an offense that, under coordinator Mick McCall, has traveled more frequently by air than ground. Prater just needed a fresh start; back in his home state, removed from the constant Kiffin-enhanced freneticism of USC, Prater would blossom into the player his recruiting ranking said he was. Prater would become a star.

This ability was supposed to manifest itself immediately, or within the first few games of Prater’s first season. 13 games and one long-bemoaned winless bowl streak-snapping later, we still don’t know what to predict about the rest of Prater’s career at NU. For some guidance as to where one might start mapping things out, I encourage you to divide your thoughts into two simple pools of thought.

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(1) On one hand, Prater was so good in highschool, and so immensely talented, that his watershed breakout moment – that 100+ yard, two-touchdown game – is bound to happen sooner rather than later. A player with his pedigree can’t be this unproductive for this long. There’s too much natural ability bottled up inside that 6’5’’ frame to realistically think what we saw from Prater last season is the conclusive peak of his statistical productivity. Somewhere down the line, Prater will rise up and become his former five-star self. Recruits this feted don’t simply drown into third-option mediocrity the way Prater did last season. There has to be another gear. It’s in there, somewhere.

(2) Moving across the proverbial roundtable, we come to the other side of the Prater debate. Relative to recruiting hype – and the universal applause that followed news of the NCAA granting his hardship waiver for immediate eligibility – Prater’s first season was a massive letdown. He caught 10 passes for 54 yards, never challenged Demetrius Fields or Tony Jones or Rashad Lawrence near the top of the depth chart and saw his responsibilities veer more and more towards the blocking, and not receiving, side of position-specific duties as the season wore on. Prater became a non-factor in the vertical passing game. His role was diminished beyond first-glance box score detection.

It was a bad season for Prater, and not by mistake. Prater was unproductive because that’s exactly what he is: not productive. Northwestern, and its frequently miscast “option offense,” didn’t have anything to do with it. The option sets the Wildcats frequently ran last season didn’t curb Prater’s season receiving totals. Even when the Wildcats did decide to throw the ball downfield, Prater wasn’t the first, or even the second, target. He was an occasionally good blocker, an occasionally bad one, and a tall target known more for his high school reputation than anything he’s ever done in the college game since. Prater isn’t about to suddently recall his deep-threat potential, his ability to outjump taller defenders and outmuscle smaller ones. Prater is a lost cause, and what you saw last season is the most anyone should expect.

Because the player who was basically allowed to put his college recruitment on auto-pilot while nationally revered programs fawned over his boundless abilities is long gone. We never saw it coming, and it might have happened before he ever stepped onto a college campus, but at some point, Prater’s natural talents simply vanished into the abyss – and he’s never getting them back. Northwestern fans need to open their eyes, and stop hanging on the illusory possibility of a Prater-rebound. It’s not happening. Prater is an entirely different player these days – the past three years have permanently stunted his football progression. It’s over.

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There are valid points to be made on both sides, and neither argument is a foolproof prospectus for Prater’s final two seasons as a Wildcat. I’ve heard plenty of people fall on both sides of the debate, and honestly, both opinions are right. Or wrong. Forgive my inability to process – this Prater situation is baffling, and I don’t really know how to make a valid appraisal without branching off into the fuzzy personal unknowns of Prater’s physical and emotional states.

And there’s more to it than that! This is also a difficult situation to analyze because it’s frustrating watching someone as talented as Prater, who has no doubt struggled with a slew of injuries (many of which no one but Prater, his teammates, coaches and the athletic training staff actually know about) attempt to discover himself in a discipline – playing wide receiver, duh – that once came to him so easily. Prater was the prototypical future NFL Draft pick, and now, three years later, we are openly contemplating whether he will even be one of Northwestern’s top four receivers this season.

Offensive tweaks – specifically, a slight de-emphasis on the passing game last season – may not have helped Prater’s transition into NU, but the breadth of Prater’s puzzling ineffectiveness cannot be chopped down into easily-digestible, reasonable, football-grounded reasons. I don’t know why Prater couldn’t put it together last season, but I do know there’s something we collectively do not: how Prater will play the next two seasons. If I had an answer, I’d tell you, but as the above divergence of thoughts indicates, I’m just as lost as you presumably are.

A massive All-Big Ten season wouldn’t shock me, but neither would another mediocre 10-20-catch year. Demetrius Fields is the only receiver of note who graduated after last season, and the offensive game plan – following the prolific option play of Mark and Kain Colter last season – should only undergo minor tweaks. Unless coordinator Mick McCall decides to implement a heavy package of deep passing plays, or change the structure of the playbook in some other distinguishable way, Northwestern’s offense will look a lot like it did last season. Northwestern’s entire team will look a lot like it did last season.

A stasis of sorts, individually and schematically, if only to continue what worked so well, so consistently with most of the same players last season, is the best way to think about how Northwestern will approach 2013. That doesn’t leave any room for any entirely novel offensive concepts to supplement Prater’s skill set.

There were very few positive takeaways for Kyle Prater last season, and unless the offense changes, or Prater himself steps up and leaps over other capable wideouts on the depth chart in training camp, the bleak 2012 script might simply repeat itself. I mean, why wouldn’t it?

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