Only 38 yards separated Northwestern’s top receiver last season (Christian Jones, at 668) from its No. 2 (Tony Jones, at 630). Both Christian and Tony will be back in 2014, but which player will record more receiving yards? Or will another pass-catcher – Miles Shuler, say – take home NU’s individual receiving crown? Both of those questions helped inspire today’s debate topic.
When I tackled this question about a year ago, I argued Cameron Dickerson would be Christian Jones’ top challenger. I was wrong.
I feel even more confident Jones will lead Northwestern in receiving in 2014. As the Wildcats’ descended into a seven-game losing skid last season, Jones’ numbers dipped. He recorded two receptions for 44 yards against Ohio State; four for 49 against Wisconsin; five for 53 against Minnesota; three for 22 against Iowa; two for 8 against Nebraska; 7 for 54 against Michigan ; and 3 for 43 against Michigan State.
In the season finale against Illinois, Jones exploded for 182 yards and two touchdowns. At a post-game news conference, we learned Siemian had been battling a heel injury for part of the season and that the Ilinois game was the healthiest he had been since the Wisconsin game. Not only will Siemian be back, he won’t be splitting snaps with another quarterback, as far as we know. The Illinois game illustrated how productive Jones can be with a healthy Siemian throwing him passes.
There is one huge caveat here: Illinois’ pass defense was pretty terrible last season, ranking 108th in Football Outsiders’ pass defense S&P+ Ratings. But that Illinois game (which Kain Colter was unavailable for) is arguably the most predictive – if small and skewed favorably, because of the Illini’s pass defense – sample we have for what an NU offense operated by a healthy Siemian will look like, and Jones was, clearly, a huge part of the game plan.
Which is why, after the game, I wrote the following about Siemian and Jones: “To see them play this well on the final game of this season inspires confidence heading into the next about what they might be able to achieve together.” Am I placing way too much emphasis on one game? Probably. Jones made a couple of really nice catches, including a one-handed snag for a touchdown in the first quarter, and played so well overall that until someone else proves otherwise, it’s hard to envision Jones not being Northwestern’s top receiving target.
Whatever we can glean about Jones and Siemian from the Illinois game – maybe it’s as simple as, “Illlinois’ pass defense was incompetent enough to leave Jones open over and over again and Siemian made some nice throws” – it stands to reason Jones, with a pocket-passing QB operating the offense full-time, will get more passes thrown his way. Other receivers could see their totals increase as well, of course, but Jones figures to receive the biggest bump.
The way Jones ended last season may not be indicative of what he can produce on a weekly basis. Jones may not have another 180-yard game. Still, he was Northwestern’s go-to receiver for most of 2013 (especially in the Illinois game, as no one else caught more than five passes) and there’s no reason that shouldn’t carry over into 2014.
- Chris Johnson
In reality, I agree with Chris that Christian Jones will be Northwestern's leading receiver. He's an outstanding possession receiver, and when the Wildcats' passing game opened up against Illinois, he put on a show. And with NU likely passing even more this year, expect a lot of people around the Big Ten to know who Jones is by the end of the season.
But for the fun of this exercise, I thought I'd throw out a different name — Miles Shuler. This year, Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson and Shuler are, to me, very clearly NU's top four receivers. Shuler's inclusion on that list might be surprising, since the Rutgers transfer has yet to play in a game for the Wildcats and has questions about his hands. However, from what we've seen in spring practice and from the way NU plans to use him, Shuler has the potential to break out in his first season in Evanston.
Lot's of people are worried that Shuler could be Kyle Prater 2.0 — a former top recruit who transferred and couldn't live up to the hype. However, the problem so far for Prater (who I actually think will contribute a lot more this year) has been that he hasn't fit in the offense. Northwestern doesn't need a big guy who bodies up defensive backs to catch jump balls. It needs a player who can create for himself after the catch. Shuler can do that. In fact, he thinks he'll be used how a former star NU receiver was used, according to ESPN:
"I watch Jeremy Ebert all the time," Shuler said. "I love what they did with him in the past, and I'm really excited to see what they'll bring for me this year. I don't know how they'll use me, but I expect it will be similar to how they used Jeremy."
While Christian Jones has played a lot in the slot, Shuler fits the Ebert/Zeke Markshausen-type of player that has thrived there for NU, and he will give the Wildcats a dynamic they haven't had since Ebert graduated. Shuler will also be a threat to spread the field with his feet and could certainly be a threat on sweep plays this season.
So don't sleep on Shuler just because you haven't seen him play. He's a much better fit at Northwestern than he was at Rutgers, and he could end up being the missing piece the Wildcats' offense needs.
- Kevin Trahan