Starters returning: 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)
Depth Chart Projection:
Y – Cameron Dickerson, Pierre Youngblood-Ary
H – Christian Jones, Mike Jensen
Z – Rashad Lawrence, Kyle Prater
X – Tony Jones, Mike McHugh
Explaining the Depth Chart:
Lettered descriptions are a handy way to delegate receiver responsibilities, and if you’re interested in what each letter means specifically, I suggest you confer with this vast reservoir of free information we like to call the internet for an assortment of different answers. I’ll focus on the players, thank you very much, Northwestern’s players, actually.
The only big change you’ll notice right off the bat is Demetrius Fields, or his absence therein. Maybe the most surprising part about this depth chart is Kyle Prater’s backup status. Last year was about getting his feet wet and weaning off the training wheels, but you sort of expected Prater to assert himself this season. He hasn’t had a real opportunity to do that so far – Prater was held out of spring workouts with an undisclosed injury – and his absence has allowed other players, such as X receiver Mike McHugh, to prove their value to this offense.
Another item of note: coach Pat Fitzgerald has offered nothing but effusive praise for H receiver Mike Jensen. His quickness and good hands make a terrific asset over the middle and in short crossing routes. Oh, and Cameron Dickerson is a 6’3’’, 200-pound sophomore with more sheer athletic talent than anyone on this list. He would be someone you’d want to keep an eye on this fall.
Stock Up: Mike Jensen
With just four catches to his name, it might surprise you to learn Jensen was one of the most consistently productive receivers throughout spring practice. I wrote it above, but it bears repeating: Fitzgerald loves Jensen’s work ethic and toughness, and his performance has met every degree of that praise.
If the Wildcats look to incorporate more short passes and across-the-middle stuff, simple plays to ease Colter into a comfortable passing rhythm, Jensen is a reliable option who made major progress in spring workouts. I expect his progression to continue into the summer, and even if he’s not stealing targets away from Christian Jones – Fitzgerald has offered similar glowing praise for Jones, and rightly so – Jensen should become a functional component in a deep receiving corps. At the very least we can say this (with a strong level of certainty): Jensen’s final year on campus will be his most productive.
Stock Down: Kyle Prater
This would have been an easier determination to make were Prater available for spring workouts. As it is, he wasn’t, and so we’re stuck making assumptions based on perception and the performance of the players around him. On those measures, Prater is falling, and unless he proves otherwise in preseason workouts, expect another low-productivity year from the former five-star recruit.
The initial excitement over Prater’s transfer to Northwestern spiked late last summer when it was learned that Prater would be able to bypass the customary one-year transfer waiting period. His first season didn’t amount to anything near what his immense talent or reputation suggested, but because Northwestern had one of its most successful seasons in school history, and because the Wildcats leaned on the run more than the pass, Prater’s poor form was a minor sidebar, something to be brushed off. Even if the Wildcats turn in another excellent season, Prater is expected to perform to something resembling his boundless capabilities, and to date he hasn’t come close. Spring workouts, Prater’s absence aside, did not shake that perception.
Position Battle to Watch: None
Continuity is a favorable quality for an upward-trending football program to have, and when it presents situations like the one you see above, coaches can pick up right where they left off. That’s pretty much where we find ourselves with Northwestern’s receiving corps. The second-string listings will be tweaked over the course of the season as coaches react to upticks and downturns in performance, and you may see players shuffled around the four letter listings, but what you see on that depth chart is essentially what you’re going to get this fall.
The only major difference from last season is Fields’ absence, and Lawrence has wholeheartedly accepted his leadership responsibilities. This is a sturdy and battle-tested group, all of them well-versed in the Wildcats’ spread attack and all its wacky, quarterback-shuffling, option-inclined variations.
Biggest Offseason Question: Will we see a more productive passing game than last season?
Offenses evolve over time. They adjust to personnel and schematic preferences. It’s a process that typically takes years – and sometimes a coaching change – to fully implement. Northwestern crunched their offensive shift (if you can even call it that) into one offseason – from 2011 to 2012, the number of passes completed dropped from 289 to 231. That lines up with the evidence on the field – Northwestern finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at 4.93 yards per play, and was frequently and heedlessly identified with Venric Mark’s big play abilities and Kain Colter’s mobility. Some went as far as to call the Wildcats an “option offense.”
The change was not as drastic as one might presume and, as was veritably obvious to anyone who watched more than Sportscenter highlights of Northwestern’s games last season, the Wildcats were far more sophisticated than a simple bootleg option one-trick pony. Northwestern attempted only 18 more run plays last season than in 2011. They were simply better, and more unpredictable, with how they ran the ball. One point that can’t be argued is Northwestern’s decline in passing production. After registering 8.1 yards per attempt in 2011, Northwestern’s average dropped to just 6.0 yards last season.
If that can be remedied, and the running game retains last season’s torrid pace, this offense can blossom into one of the Big Ten’s best. With this group of receivers, and two quarterbacks who no doubt better understand their rotations and situational strengths, there’s no reason to think the passing game can’t return to 2011-level output.
Post-Spring Breakdowns So Far