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One Less Day Til Football Season, Post 3: Wide Receivers

I've been putting this one off for a while, because SO MANY WIDE RECEIVERS. Also, because, well, there was no way I was posting on my birthday last week. I'm now 21 years old and therefore am legally allowed to drink, which I've totally never done before, especially not directly before attending the football and basketball games that I meticulously preview and recap on this website! Of course, due to the high standard of excellence you've come to expect from this site, I plan on continuing to not drink before football okay this charade is getting tired but in my defense I've never blacked out at a sporting event and swear I'll try not to really hard until I graduate.

Days left til football season: 53. (Nice! Under two months!) 

First, a note on terminology:

Some of you may remember a post from last year about wide receivers. I pointed out that while players in the system are given certain spots on the depth chart to correspond to their positions - X, a split end at the line of scrimmage, Y, a flanker opposite the split end, Z, a slot receiver, and H, an even further inside receiver - that tells you where players line up but necessarily tell you much about their role on the team. 

I've spent a pretty decent amount of time thinking about whether my initial stipulation - that NU had certain roles determined for wide receivers that didn't necessarily correspond to those terms - was correct. I wanted really badly to disprove that initial concept, because I'm an idiot whose knowledge of football is limited to sitting behind a laptop and watching a lot of games and highlight reels, which is to say, I know just about nothing. 

But I've found that by and large, it's true. NU asks certain things of each receiver that correspond to their skillset. How effective these players are at accomplishing those tasks - that is to say, how frequently they can be depended on to get open - seems to determine how much love they get from their quarterback. And year after year, NU seems to have players who fit these roles more than their predecessor at whatever letter position did. 

It's obviously crude - extremely crude. But I offer these shoddy comparisons to allow us to better think about these players, consider these comparisons not an attempt to lump players heavy-handedly together but rather to show - and inherently, the differences - between them. I probably look like I'm trying to lump a few square pegs into round holes, but it's probably more like a octagonal peg in a... uhh... nine-sided polygon? -shaped hole and showing why it has a slightly better chance of fitting than in that hexagonal hole over there. Yes, three of the players I project to fill these roles have the same letter position as that role's namesake. But looking at four years of contrasting letters/roles, there has been year-to-year change in which role is which letter. Certainly some are more likely to match up than others, but I'm trying to handle this with nuance - which players seem most like which other players in the past - rather than just assuming that the letter will indicate their utility.

So, refresher:

The Eric Peterman: Murder out of an inside wide receiver position. Likely to get the majority of Northwestern's passes,  this guy is a spectacular route runner with sure hands guaranteed to be in an open seam against a zone defense. Peterman was a Y receiver, his successor in this role was Zeke Markshausen, who played the H spot.

The Andrew Brewer (né the Ross Lane): What caused me to call this a position was that both were tall, played outside, and were NU's prime target on deep balls. As you'll see, this is a troublesome one.

The Rasheed Ward: An outside receiver more likely to get short catches - crossing patterns, buttonhooks up and out the wazoo - than long ones, forcing his defender to guard both a six-yard cutback along the sidelines as well as a eight-yard slant to the middle of the field, knowing full well most non-prescient people legs modified to use nitrous oxide can't do that.

The fourth guy: NU likes to go five wide a lot. Three guys routinely play wide receiver every down. One RB or superback typically gets split out wide in these sets while one guy lives large not having to back up their respective Peterman/Brewer/Ward prototype for a down.

While writing this post, I watched some highlight reels to get a sense of where players lined up consistently. What you'll see is that it's tough to follow. There's a few constants - for example Jeremy Ebert is almost always the player furthest inside, except for three plays I noticed, one being a designed WR pass where he was the second of three receivers on a side and the other two coming when he was the only receiver on a side with a packed backfield - and NU has a few go-tos - they loved lining up Stewart-Dunsmore-Ebert from outside to inside in a five-wide set - but for the most part, NU seemingly cycles haphazardly through a rolodex featuring about seven wide receivers, a superback, three running backs, and, in the TicketCity Bowl, when Kain Colter and Evan Watkins routinely took the field together and frequently lined up as slot receivers while the other played QB, scattering uniform numbers around like dandelions or Shawn Kemp's genetic material. But unlike Kemp not using a latex so he didn't get that late text, that "I think I'm late" text, there seems to be a method in Mick McCall's madness, and although I can't sort it out fully, this is my way of saying I'm trying, and sorry it sucks.

Who did it last year?

Peterman: Coming back to the feature receiver aspect of the slot role, Jeremy Ebert was unreal for Northwestern. He comfortably led the Cats in yardage, receptions, and touchdowns, killing defenses with his ability to find seams in zones and killing single defenders by putting on the afterburners on passes over the top. A disturbing amount of third down conversions this year were either Persa scrambles or Persa-Ebert hookups, I remember him having something like five third-down conversions against Indiana. Ebert was easily first-team Big Ten, easily Biletnikoff watchlist, and had more yardage than the three next wide receivers had combined. He was Peterman with more of a nose for the ball, Markshausen with more of an ability to get open downfield. I shouldn't need to write about the next guys.

Ward: This is the one that makes sense: Sidney Stewart was not a major playmaker his senior year - not to say that Ward was never a playmaker, but that he was never the premier wide receiver but had a knack for getting open. Stew was second on the team in receptions and yardage, but didn't find the end zone once - if I remember correctly, he dropped an easy touchdown against Illinois State - and didn't have any receptions for more than 28 yards. He lived on cutback routes to the inside and outside, an easy first read for Dan Persa to pick up six yards on first down.

Brewer: Demetrius Fields doesn't really fit this role. He's not as tall as Lane or Brewer, and wasn't as prominent in the offense. It's troublesome. But he came on strong as a third option for NU and on identical plays against Iowa and Texas Tech, beat his man to a spot at the corner of the end zone for pivotal touchdowns. I'm pretty tempted to put "vacant" on this slot here, out of the 2008-2009-2010 campaigns and my predictions for 2011, this seems the one "match" that simply doesn't make that much sense, but I still see some connection in terms of his work downfield. 

Fourth guy: Again, a misnomer, because NU had a lot of guys rotate into these spots. Charles Brown was open out of the slot from time to time, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones played a lot on the outside and made opponents pay from time to time with their speed.

Who's gone?

Stewart is NU's only loss at wide receiver that received any playing time. He didn't have the breakout senior year I'd hoped - his stats declined across the board from 2009, when he was a third wheel to Brewer and Markshausen - but he was a relatively reliable receiver for short looks. 

Who's got next?

Peterman: Ebert. Look forward to this role receiving a renaming next year after its best practitioner as of yet.

Ward: Fields. This is a much more natural role for Fields, who, like Ward, but not Stewart, before him, will start at the "X" spot next year. He's proven his worth in the dink-and-dunk with great hands. I think he has a lot of Stewart with a little bit more upside to him.

Brewer: Rashad Lawrence is listed to start in the "Z" spot inhabited by Sidney Stewart last year, but Lawrence strikes me more like Brewer and Lane - who each played at "Z" before Stewart. Like I said I was uneasy about putting Fields at this role up above, but this seems like a natural fit: he seems as physically gifted as any wide out in my time at Northwestern, and the fact that NU put him as a starter on the depth chart after a pretty low-profile freshman campaign with only one major departure at the wide receiver position has me imagining him as a home run threat. 

Fourth guy: The "H" position has returned to NU's depth chart, and its starter is Charles Brown. To me this indicates that Brown will get looks in four- and five-wide sets as the fifth receiver while guys like Tony Jones and Drew Moulton get their licks as backups to the other guys. Then again, the last guy listed as an "H" was Zeke Markshausen, who inhabited the Peterman role up above getting constantly open out of the inside position.

Is that a step up?: I think so.

Even without knowing what potential true and redshirt freshmen could bring, I'm very confident in the depth and talent of this wide receiver corps. Ebert's unreal, Fields exhibited a lot of good stuff in limited time last year - I can't get his one-handed snag against Indiana or the Iowa game-winner out of my head - Lawrence, like I said, is a specimen, and that's not even counting Tony Jones, who is faaaast, Brown, who, well, is a wide receiver, and 13 other wide receivers on the roster. There should be oodles of competition and for once, an overload of talent at a position at Northwestern. I expect Fields and Lawrence to be better fits at their roles as I see them than the people playing those roles were last year.

And again, Ebert is unreal.

Rodger's three wishes: 

Don't make Venric Mark worry about being a wide receiver: He's fast. Really fast. But as of right now, his talent is speed, not playing wide receiver. When I look at his 5-foot-8 stature and nearly eight yards a carry, I wonder whether he might be better served as a back in an always in-need-of-help backfield rather than a sixth man in a crowded spread. And if not, kick returner extraordinaire doesn't sound bad. Or perhaps with Jeravin Matthews a starting corner, he'll be able to replace Matthews at the gunner spot on punt returns, where Matthews was probably one of the better gunners in the country (there's no stats on stuff like this, but, he was phenomenal.)

Appreciate Jeremy Ebert: F'reals. 

Redshirt the true freshmen: NU has three three-star wide receiver recruits coming in. They're all 6-foot-3 and ran 40 times under 4.6. But NU doesn't need them. The Cats burned three freshmen redshirts last year at this position and although physical talent goes a long way at a spot like wideout more than elsewhere, but with an abundance of young athletes, why bother?


So, remember that I'm an idiot, but I think this is a handy way to deal with a) NU football and b) my idiocy.