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Time to step up: Cameron Dickerson

The biggest untapped talent in Northwestern’s passing game has managed to stay out of most people’s preseason evaluations of the Wildcats receiving corps. That could be a huge oversight if Cameron Dickerson finally gets the opportunities he needs to turn his immense athletic talents into his first productive college season.

Every eyewitness account of Dickerson this offseason implies he can; in spring practice, Dickerson routinely matched up with first team cornerbacks and routinely used his leaping and speed advantages to put said cornerbacks on the losing end of one-on-one battles. He may not be the fastest receiver on Northwestern’s roster – Tony Jones is the rightful owner of that crown this year – but he is the most athletically gifted, and if the Wildcats use those gifts to their advantage when designing passing plays, incorporating Dickerson as a primary target more frequently, the offense will get a jolt of individual perimeter playmaking it barely scratched last season.

Allow me take you back to Northwestern’s 2012 spring game. If you attended, or even read about the controlled scrimmage, there was one play everyone was talking about afterward. The simplest description, so as to not spoil the contents of the video below, is Dickerson beating Northwestern’s best corner, Nick VanHoose, on a 40-yard touchdown grab from Trevor Siemian. See for yourself:

As you can see, Dickerson is a big, strong, athletic receiver – you didn’t need last season’s spring game as a reminder. He did record nine receptions for 54 yards in 2012, including a 19-yard touchdown grab at Michigan. But after seeing how talented and explosive he was throughout last spring, and into preseason camp, isn’t there some small amount of frustration as to why he wasn’t targeted more often?

The reasons why he wasn’t are plain: Dickerson was lost in the shuffle of a deep receiving corps. The axis of Northwestern’s offensive philosophy tilted towards the run. Dan Vitale emerged as another viable pass-catching threat on top of the already well-stocked receiving corps at hand. In an offense that thrived on option run plays, that was loath to throw the ball downfield any time one of its two quarterbacks was under center, the best qualities Dickerson offers – superb individual athleticism, the ability to outleap defenders on long throws, fantastic spatial awareness, a true deep threat – were de-emphasized in favor of other offensive priorities. Another factor to consider is Dickerson’s age: he was only a redshirt freshman last season. All of that makes sense; it also overlooks the fact Northwestern only barely used one of its most explosive pass-catchers.

One year later, Dickerson has a season of varsity football – even if most of it was spent watching other more-established receivers dominate the passing game – to learn from. He also has another excellent spring practice session to draw confidence that his abilities will be put into action more often this season. There was no single breathtaking highlight play this year, only a consistently productive display highlighted by several impressive leaping catches and a stronger rapport with both quarterbacks.

Last season was a trial run. Dickerson is ready for more in 2013. Every piece of visual and anecdotal evidence says he is. The Wildcats could use him, too. Whatever the specifics of coordinator Mick McCall’s offense, Dickerson deserves a larger place within it.