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One Less Day Til Football 2010, Post 3: Northwestern's Wide Receivers

48 days left? My advice: go see Inception 48 times. 

Days left til Football: 48

One Less Day Til Football, Post 3: Wide Receiver

First, some Terminology: 

Not all Northwestern wide receivers are created equal. Some would interpret this statement to mean that I believe that "possession receivers" are in fact, the possessions of other, more equal receivers, but, that's enough snide commentary on the more depressing aspects of world history. What I mean is that not all NU wide outs are expected to fulfill the same role. 

 Over the past few years, we've seen a few distinct roles emerge in the NU scheme, characterized to guys specific skillsets. Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen were not interchangeable: they essentially played different positions, though they were both wide receivers. And these positions are assigned less by skill level than skill set: the "most talented" receiver could end up in whichever role fits him, whether that be outside or in the slot. With a little bit of youtube analysis, I've characterized what I believe to be the four roles NU incorporates into their offense, and the letter NU seems to have assigned to that position.

(Note: I do not have any sort of football knowledge, but you'll probably figure this out by the third paragraph.)

1. "The Ross Lane

Role: Play on the outside, be tall, and basically just repeatedly continue to try to beat the opponent deep. 

2. "The Eric Peterman

Role: The featured slot guy, generally the one who will get the majority of passes thrown his way over the course of the season.

3. "The Rasheed Ward

Role: Run a milliondy billion crossing routes until your legs fall off. If the first option fails, this guy (or the running back) will be there as the second option for the QB to hit when things don't go to plan. Must be capable of playing in either the slot or as a lone receiver on one side of the formation.

4. "The Fourth Guy" 

Role: Typically, NU's spread puts four players out wide. However, about half the time, this fourth wide player will be a superback or running back. Still, every once in a while, NU needs a fourth wide receiver - typically on the outside, for some reason - to come in and run little dumpy patterns to demand attention and open up space for bigger routes. 

These are what I have determined to be the seasons of NU wide receiving.

NU, being football people, have their own system for referring to these four positions: Z, Y, X, and H. This is consistent with your average football terminology: Z is an outside receiver who plays off the line of scrimmage, Y is an inside receiver typically referred to as the "slot" guy, H is an always the innermost receiver, meaning he's either in the slot on a side with two receivers, or even further inside than the Y receiver on a side with three receivers, and X is an outside wide receiver who plays on the line of scrimmage. However, looking at the way these terms have been used at NU, it's not a good representative of how pivotal the player is to the program: for example, in 2008, Eric Peterman was listed as the starting Y receiver, and Andrew Brewer was listed as the H. Peterman was NU's featured receiver, Brewer battled injuries, but even when healthy, was often replaced by Tyrell Sutton in the slot. That is to say, in 2008, the Y receiver was hugely important, while the H receiver was barely noticeable.

In 2009, Jeremy Ebert was listed as the Y receiver, while Zeke Markshausen was listed as the H. Ebert was barely present for large swaths of the season, while Markshausen had the second most receptions in school history. That is to say, the Y receiver was barely noticeable, while the H receiver was historically good. 

Saying Peterman and Ebert filled the same role because they were both Y receivers, or Brewer and Markshausen, doesn't make much sense to me. They each play the same "position", but from year to year, those positions have different roles. 

Another wrinkle is that NU has eliminated the H receiver from this year's two-deep, which I'd interpret as indicating that Drake Dunsmore at superback will essentially replace the need for a fourth wide receiver on most four- and five-wide plays. So, for the rest of this post, I will use my highly flawed terminology to describe what I expect to happen next year, instead of using NU's letter terminology. Sue me if you want to. 

Who did it last year?: 

The Ross Lane: This role was filled by Andrew Brewer, and he did so well with it that in future, I'll call this position "The Andrew Brewer." Brewer was great at creating space between him and his man on deep balls, and worked this to the tune of 925 yards, the fourth most in school history.

The Eric Peterman: Zeke Markshausen was another guy who, to a certain extent, came to redefine his role. While Peterman was the feature receiver in his years at NU, Markshausen shared spotlight duties with Brewer, bringing down way more receptions, but for less yardage, the quintessential possession receiver out of the slot. As noted, he brought down 91 receptions for 858 yards, which would've led the team in 2008 - while never pulling down a catch of more than 30 yards.

The Rasheed Ward: With Brewer and Markshausen highly competent at their positions, the dump-off guy gig got a little bit of slack cut towards him. But Sidney Stewart was highly servicable as well. Like Ward before him, Stewart did a good job of being semi-noticeable for most of the beginning of the season, only to explode at the end, with both his touchdowns and 90-plus yard receiving days coming in the season's last two games. Overall, very Sheed-y performance from Sid.

The Fourth Guy: This role was seemingly very evenly split between Demetrius Fields and Jeremy Ebert, who had eerily similar stat lines for the season. 

Who's got next: Let's go role-by-role, again. NU has only four returning receivers who have career receptions, so, there's not much to go by.

The Ross Lane: The logical choice seems to be Jeremy Ebert, which is weird, because height is big in the outside position, and before writing this post, I assumed he was 5'11, but NUsports has him at 6 feet, and ESPN has him at 6'1. 

Ebert, you may remember, looked good as a freshman two years ago in limited duty, reeled in two touchdown grabs, including one in his first collegiate game, causing my friends and I to remark how weird it was that we were about to be freshmen while watching the game and this kid already had a touchdown. (We didn't know he was a redshirt.) Although his stats increased as a sophomore, he seemed to be going Roeper on us and regressing as a player: he had a hip injury, and although he played in every game, he didn't bring in any touchdowns and only recorded two games with more than two catches. But Ebert was clearly the feature of the spring game, bringing in a way-team-high 49 yards receiving, so, look to him to be a a feature player in the 2010 season.

Ebert's depth-chart backup is Charles Brown, a junior who had eight receptions last year, all in a four game stretch in the middle of the year. All you need to know about Charlie is that he isn't our kicker, and our holder will not be a malevolent girl insistent on wrecking her team's chances for salvaging special teams points.

Sorry, Charles Brown. I'm sure you never get this joke. You're a good wide receiver.

The Eric Peterman: Sidney Stewart is one of only two seniors on the team's wide receiving corps, and has played on both the inside and outside, and seemed promising while doing so. I'm not sure where NU plans on playing him - they curiously have him listed as the Z, or outside, receiver on the team website, which is where the majority of his experience last year came, while Stewart's profile page on NUsports says he'll be an inside receiver - but wherever they do, he'll be a huge factor. He's NU's most experienced wide out, hands down, and he's got one season to step it up after having been an understudy for three years. I expect him to lead the team in receptions.

Also, that picture of him up top taken after the Iowa game is really awesome. He was probably singing the fight song, but I imagined him singing either the song he's pictured singing or "I Believe I Can Fly" judging from his facial expression of pure joy. 

His backup on the depth chart is Drew Moulton, a redshirt freshman who looked very good in the spring game - Markshausen-esque, getting a team high four receptions and not dropping any balls I can recall, which is more than I can say about pretty much any other young wide receiver on the team. I wouldn't be surprised to see Moulton get some play at the fourth wide receiver spot. 

The Rasheed Ward: Demetrius Fields seems perfectly suited for this role from what we saw of him in his freshman campaign. Everybody's second favorite Fields probably isn't ready to step into the primetime yet, but could work wonders as a third option, running the aforementioned milliondy billion crossing routes. His backup on the depth chart is Brendan Barber, a walk-on sophomore about whom I know nothing. 

The Fourth Guy: As noted, NU has removed the fourth wide receiver role from their post-spring two-deep, so, expect healthy doses of Drake Dunsmore split out. But I also expect Drew Moulton get some playing time - I like his style. There's also Brown, and Lee Coleman, a senior, whose spring game escapades featured as many dropped passes that went in and out of his hands as I have hands, that is, if I were a genetic freak with three hands, because he dropped three passes in one spring game, which is impressive. 

Sum that up in one sentence (the short attention span version of this post) : Ebert and Stewart should be the main receivers, with Demetrius Fields as a major player as well.


Is that/are these improvements?: Who knows? (THIS. THIS IS THE ANALYSIS YOU COME HERE FOR.) If you'd told me last year, "Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen will be a more effective receiving corps than Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, and Rasheed Ward," first, I'd stop listening to you and walk away, then I'd ask you if that was actually how you pronounced the guy with the long last name's name, because I guessed that it was "Marchausen". I'm starting to get the sense that any purple-clad receiver can eventually be a decent filler-inner at any of the four roles listed above: pretty much everybody we bring in is of a certain level athletically, and for the most part over the past few years, have had very sure hands. They're not going to make spectacular grabs - Lane/Brewer aside - but work the spread's passing trees to find space and catch when thrown to. Brewer and Markshausen ended up having a phenomenal year, better than any individual years put up by their immediate predecessors, but was that because of their great skill, or because they were playing with a better passer on a team lacking a running game that needed to put the ball in the air? Or was it because they were such good wide receivers, the team didn't need to use third, fourth, and fifth options like they had in the past, thus diluting the stats? 

Last year, NU manufactured a great passing attack from a vast pile of seeming nothingness: a formerly benched quarterback, an oft-injured QB-turned-WR, and a guy with one career reception became one of the best statistical units NU has ever had.  Now we have a first-time starter at QB in Dan Persa, Jeremy Ebert, who was injured last year after having played quarterback in high school, Sidney Stewart, who has never been a featured receiver, and essentially nobody else. If lightning strikes twice, perhaps those four roles Pat Fitzgerald have crafted out and their specific jobs in the spread offense have more to do with NU's passing success than the individual skill of the guys he brings in, and next year, this post will be 48 words long. 

We'll see. (Hopefully, for your sake and mine, and Sidney Stewart's it will be 48 words long.)