Returning starters: Tony Jones (Sr.), Christian Jones (Sr.)
Others returning: Tom Fuessel (RS Fr.), Cameron Dickerson (Jr.), Jordan Perkins (Jr.), Mark Gorogianis (RS Fr.), Kyle Prater (Sr.), Corey Acker (RS Fr.), Mike McHugh (So.), Quinn Baker (RS Fr.), Cermak Bland (Jr.), Andrew Scanlan (So.), Austin Carr (So.), Macan Wilson (RS Fr.), Pierre Youngblood-Ary (Jr.)
Transfer: Miles Shuler (Jr.)
Incoming recruits: Solomon Vault
Biggest spring question: What should we expect from Kyle Prater?
This season is Kyle Prater’s last chance to prove he can be a productive college receiver. Maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at it, because the reason many of us expected Prater, a former five-star recruit, to be a productive receiver stems from what scouts thought of him in high school. Here’s a sample, from an ESPN scouting report.
“Prater is a mammoth wide receiver with a frame that has yet to even fill out. He has rare height and possesses possibly the longest wingspan of any receiver in this class. Is long and lean and extremely flexible for a player with his size. Displays supreme body control, can adjust to poorly-thrown balls and makes acrobatic catches look easy. Drives off the line with good burst and has a huge stride. Gets into routes quickly and shows nice awareness for coverage.”
If you watched Prater play at any point over the last two seasons, would you say any of those things about him? He’s big (6-foot-5, 225 pounds), so maybe you can get away with the “mammoth wide receiver” or “rare height” labels. But besides that? Let’s face it: Prater hasn’t come close to meeting the expectations Northwestern fans had for him when he transferred. It will probably take a miracle for that to happen this year. But can he be better than he was the last two seasons? Maybe.
In 10 games last season, Prater caught 9 passes for 59 yards. He should have some more opportunities this season, and if he’s healthy (he’s dealt with a number of injuries during his time at NU), I suppose he could post better numbers. But Northwestern has, in my mind, at least three receivers that are better than Prater – Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Cameron Dickerson (you can argue for others; I’m being conservative) All of those guys will likely have better seasons than Prater.
If I’m wrong, it will be because Prater proved to coaches that he deserved to be more involved in the offense. We’ll have to wait until preseason practice to get a better idea of where he stands among the other wideouts, but it’ll be interesting to watch him perform this spring. Maybe this is the year when he finally turns a corner, when that five-star talent shines through.
Truly, I don’t expect that to happen. But maybe Prater can be a serviceable third of fourth option in an offense that should include more passing plays. Maybe not. Northwestern has other talented wideouts it will look to. So it will be on Prater to prove that he deserves to have the ball thrown to him. That process begins in the spring.
I don’t foresee there being any competition for two of the starting receiver spots. Tony Jones will start at the X receiver spot, while Christian Jones will start at H. The other two are a little less clear. I think Cameron Dickerson will step into the Z spot vacated by Rashad Lawrence, while Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler will take the Y receiver spot Mike Jensen’s departure opens up.
Shuler caught just five passes for 71 yards in 2012, but he’s really fast and could thrive in NU’s spread if coordinator Mick McCall can find ways to get him the ball in space. I expect sophomore Mike McHugh, who backed up Jensen last season and has looked good in workouts, to backup Shuler.
Prater could backup Tony Jones at X (he did last season) or Dickerson at Z. I also expect sophomore Andrew Scanlan, who played on special teams last season, to get a few passes thrown his way. I think he’ll back up Christian Jones at H. What hasn’t been addressed is where junior Pierre Youngblood-Ary fits in the offense.
Ask anybody who watched an NU practice last season and they’ll tell you the same thing: Youngblood-Ary looked really good. He didn’t catch a single pass in 2013, which was baffling, because there were days when Youngblood-Ary looked like one of NU’s best receivers.
If there's nothing holding him back this season, Youngblood-Ary could battle Prater for the backup spot at X. That may mean that Prater winds up behind Dickerson at Z. It’s hard to predict what will happen; Youngblood-Ary’s virtual nonexistence in Northwestern’s offense last season was odd. We don’t know if he will actually be a part of the offense this season, and we might not find out in the spring.
Our best guess at the depth chart
X receiver – Tony Jones, Pierre Youngblood-Ary
H receiver – Christian Jones, Andrew Scanlan
Y receiver – Miles Shuler, Mike McHugh
Z receiver – Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater