by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
After an underwhelming start to the 2012 season, Northwestern's wide receivers will try to get off to a better start to 2013. There are a lot of players returning, and those players are plenty talented, but playing time is still up for grabs. Check out our early breakdown of how things look right now and what needs to improve.
Returning starters: Rashad Lawrence (Sr), Christian Jones (Jr), Tony Jones (Jr)
Others returning: Cameron Dickerson (So), Kyle Prater (Jr), Pierre Youngblood-Ary (So), Mike Jensen (Sr), Mike McHugh (RS Fr), Cermak Bland (So), Austin Carr (RS Fr), Andrew Scanlan (RS Fr)
Incoming recruits: Tommy Fuessel, Macan Wilson
Biggest Spring Question: Who steps up?
Heading into last season, Northwestern's wide receiver corps was regarded as one of the top receiver units in the Big Ten and the best unit on the team. However, the group struggled early on, and it gained the reputation as a disappointment. But that's not entirely fair. In the early going, NU's receivers struggled with drops and were very disappointing. However, while their numbers weren't great later in the year — NU didn't pass the ball enough to help with that production — they improved their blocking technique and had fewer drops.
This group will never put up huge numbers, because that's not how the offense is designed. However, the receivers will still play an integral role in the offense, both by pass-blocking and by catching the ball.
Now comes the question: Who will step up? Last year, NU didn't really have a clear-cut leader in its receiving corps. That distinction could probably go to Demetrius Fields, who was the team's leading receiver and the only senior of the group. However, Fields wasn't necessarily the go-to guy, because NU had different players to go to depending on the situation. Fields was a bigger guy, so he was the main target on post routes and jump balls, but Rashad Lawrence and Cameron Dickerson were targeted more on out-routes and curls, while Tony Jones and Christian Jones were used more when NU needed someone to make a move and break out for a big gain downfield.
But does NU really need a single go-to receiver? Not particularly. The most important thing is that the Wildcats have a reliable, go-to player for each situation, and in that respect, a few different players need to step up next year. Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence, Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater are all very talented and all have the potential to become go-to guys in certain situations, but none of them have made that jump yet. Lawrence, Dickerson and Prater are all big guys who can go up and fight for the ball. Christian Jones is big, but can also make moves in the middle of the field. Tony Jones is a speedster who is often targeted on deep balls, but is also effective on screens.
Ultimately, at least some of the guys in this group need to step up to give NU options depending on their situation on the field. None of them will put up major numbers, because that's not how the Wildcats' offense operates. However, NU needs reliable options when it does need to throw the ball, and that's where we'll best be able to judge this unit's development, rather than in the numbers. Who will step up? It's still tough to tell. However, there will be plenty of competition among a number of talented players as the top eight receivers all fight for playing time.
Our best guess at the depth chart
Y-Receiver: Cameron Dickerson, Pierre Youngblood-Ary
H-Receiver: Christian Jones, Mike Jensen
Z-Receiver: Rashad Lawrence, Kyle Prater
X-Receiver: Tony Jones, Mike McHugh