It happens every year.
A player makes a few nice plays in spring practice and fans and the news media get excited and begin to think about whether that player can make those same plays against other teams in the fall. At post-practice meetings with the press, the head coach says he is “impressed” by how the player is performing, that he is encouraged by how hard he has worked and the strides he’s made on the field and in the weight room.
Multiple outlets use those quotes in stories, serving – from a fan’s vantage point – as validation that the player’s performance is truly noteworthy, an indication, perhaps, of what’s to come in a few months. Groupthink creeps in. Everyone hops aboard the player X bandwagon. He’s looked great in spring workouts. I can’t wait to see what he does this season. No one will be able to stop him!
Is there a Northwestern player this spring that has been regarded in this light? This question is not as easy to answer as it might have been in other years. The spring practice hype cycle has been toned down due to extenuating circumstances; Local and national reporters are focused on other things these days. But over the past week, at least, a considerable amount of attention has been lavished upon one Miles Shuler.
In one of the rare non-union Northwestern stories written over the past three months, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, referencing a recent practice, wrote Friday that “Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.” A day earlier, Aric DiLalla of WildcatReport.com described Shuler thusly: “That blur of purple streaking by is wide receiver Miles Shuler, and when he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s a big play waiting to happen.” In his recap of Saturday's open practice, InsideNU's Henry Bushnell characterized Shuler as an "explosive athlete that could add another dimension to the offense."
Those accounts paint a clear picture: Shuler has shown, through his efforts in spring practice, that he can add something to NU’s offense. But will the media be singing his praises during the season, when Shuler’s ability to “make play after play” or bear resemblance to a “blur of purple” actually matters? His track record does not inspire confidence.
Shuler was regarded as one of the top prospects in New Jersey (Every major recruiting service rated him as a four star and he was ranked the No. 11 athlete in 2011 by 247Sports’ composite) and received scholarship offers from Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Stanford, among other programs. He committed to Rutgers in December 2010. In two seasons with the Scarlet Knights, Shuler recorded five receptions for 71 yards and seven carries for 67 yards. Last summer, Shuler decided to transfer. Though coach Kyle Flood initially barred Shuler from choosing a Big Ten school, Shuler won an appeal and landed at Northwestern, which recruited him when he was in high school (and hosted him for an official visit).
There has been some talk that Shuler was not a good fit for the Scarlet Knights’ pro-style offense, which under coach Kyle Flood has tended to use bigger, more physical receivers. At Northwestern, Shuler will play in spread offense that, with Trevor Siemian, a pocket passer, under center, figures to be more pass-oriented than it was the past two seasons. If coordinator Mick McCall is as bullish on Shuler as various observers of NU’s spring practices, he should be afforded more opportunities to make plays than he was at Rutgers.
Shuler is tiny (5-foot-10, 175 pounds), but he is so fast that his size should not be much of a hindrance. At Long Branch high school in New Jersey, Shuler was a state champion sprinter. In 2010, he ran the 100-meter dash in 10.39 seconds, which, at the risk of making a completely outrageous comparison, is less than a second slower than the world record 9.58 set by Usain Bolt in 2009. A more palatable figure for football fans is 4.38 – the 40-yard dash time Shuler recorded in high school.
If Shuler is not Northwestern’s fastest player, he is second or third. McCall will no doubt take this into account when devising game plans. The underlying goal will be to get Shuler the ball in space, from which he can burst forward for big gains and possibly even long touchdowns. To get a sense of how explosive Shuler can be with the ball in his hands, check out his high school tape. For those unfamiliar with Shuler’s high school career, it should be mentioned that he primarily played quarterback.
Those long runs won’t be as easy to break off against Big Ten defenses. Getting Shuler the ball in the first place could be a challenge in itself. Unlike Northwestern’s other diminutive big-play threat, Shuler likely won’t be taking many handoffs. But if Northwestern can deliver him the ball in positions of advantage – spots on the field where he can pick up blocks and break into a full sprint, where he can summon his track prowess – Shuler can be quite productive. At the very least, defenses will have to account for him whenever he is on the field, forcing them to devote less attention to, say, Christian Jones or Venric Mark.
As you read this, you are likely recalling the last time you got excited about a heralded former wide receiver recruit who transferred to Northwestern. You’d like Shuler to be better than Kyle Prater (who, it should be said, has received positive reviews throughout the spring), but you’re skeptical – as you should be. Shuler may not perform to the level you expect, to the level news reports suggest he might. At Rutgers, Shuler was essentially a non-factor. My guess is that he will be better at Northwestern. How much better? I do not know.
But before he suits up for his first game, do not focus solely on what you heard about Shuler during the spring. Shuler has been great, and he may be great in a few months, but what if he’s not? Your expectations for him should not gloss over the possibility, however remote, that – despite a change of scenery and an offense apparently better suited for his skill set – Shuler will have a minor impact, the way he did at Rutgers. If you go into the season expecting something short of greatness, you are less likely to be disappointed.
Shuler’s really fast, though.