This is the latest in our This Year vs. Last Year series. Essentially, it’s just like it sounds — we’ll break down how each unit looks this year compared to last year. Next up is the wide receivers.
Key Losses: Demetrius Fields
Returning Starters: Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence
Other Key Returning Players: Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater, Mike Jensen, Pierre Youngblood-Ary, Mike McHugh
Why 2012 Was Better: Heading into 2012, Northwestern's wide receivers were considered one of the best wide receiver units in the Big Ten, and for the first part of the season they vastly underachieved. However, they steadily improved as the year went on and actually played better than the stat sheet might show. Their numbers weren't great, but that's because NU had such a run-heavy offense and because when the Wildcats did pass, they spread the ball around. However, the receivers did a great job of blocking on the perimeter, which was essential in helping the running game.
There aren't many arguments for why the 2012 group will be better than 2013, but the debate has to go beyond the receiving numbers. The 2013 unit is more talented and more experienced, and unless there is another slow start, the receiving numbers should be better. However, if the perimeter blocking doesn't pick up where it left off, the 2012 group may actually end up being more helpful to the entire team that year than the 2013 group.
Why 2013 Will Be Better: As noted above, the 2013 group has more talent and more experience than the 2012 group did. Yes, the Wildcats lose Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence looks poised to take over the No. 1 role, and last year's starters Christian Jones and Tony Jones are both a year older. Christian Jones, in particular, is a possible breakout candidate in his third year as a Wildcat. But even behind those players, NU has depth. Cameron Dickerson is a big, physical receiver who has the skills to be used in run blocking and go up to get passes down the field, while Kyle Prater certainly has the potential to be the same kind of player. Even former walk-on Mike Jensen, who Pat Fitzgerald called the spring MVP, should contribute this year.
NU figures to have a run-heavy offense again in 2013, so the wide receivers' numbers won't be among the best in the Big Ten. However, there is enough talent on the unit that the Wildcats will have the ability to go to the air when they want to. They also have an impressive group of big, athletic receivers — Dickerson, Prater, Lawrence and Christian Jones — who have the potential to be great run blockers down the field. Bottom line: if this group isn't better than last year, it will be a major disappointment.
This Year or Last Year: This Year
The last sentence in the previous segment pretty much says it all. Next year's unit is comprised of mostly the same players, but the young talent is growing up, and Christian Jones, Prater, Lawrence and Dickerson, in particular, all look poised to show improvement this season. The numbers will be better than last year as long as there aren't as many drops early in the season, and considering how much of a threat NU's air attack can be, it should help spread out the defense. We learned last year that it sometimes backfires to praise a unit so much in the offseason, but given the evidence from last year, the wide receivers look poised to improve in 2013.