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Northwestern Football Diversifying the Passing Game

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern added a diverse group of wide receivers Monday, receiving commitments from three-star recruits Charlie Fessler, Jelani Roberts and Cameron Green. The varied size in these additions — Fessler is 6-foot-4 and Roberts 5-foot-8 — show Pat Fitzgerald's continued effort to assemble a wide receiving corps capable of catching short passes as well as deeper tosses over the middle and along the sideline.

Early in Fitz's tenure at Northwestern, the Wildcats's top receivers were often short, speedy wideouts, such as Zeke Markshausen, Jeremy Ebert. They had some larger targets, like Andrew Brewer and Drake Dunsmore, but Mick McCall likes to depend on speedsters. In 2010, Ebert had 953 receiving yards on 15.4 yards per catch. He followed that up in 2011 with 1060 yards and 14.1 ypc.

In 2012 and 2013, the outlook was much different. Seven Wildcats had over 100 receiving yards in 2012, but none of them averaged above 11.8 yards per catch. And their leading receiver, Christian Jones, only totaled 412 receiving yards. The numbers improved in 2013 as Christian Jones and Tony Jones each went over 600 yards. However, among the Wildcats' top five receivers, only Rashad Lawrence averaged more than 12.4 ypc, and the unambitious nature of the Wildcat passing game left much to be desired.

The 'Cats are not going to stray away from their shorter, speedy receivers. Tony Jones led the team in receptions last year with 55 catches, which he turned into 630 receiving yards, and 5-foot-11 transfer Miles Shuler has the breakaway speed that some of NU's other wideouts lack. Northwestern will likely continue to throw a lot of screen passes and short slants to it's smaller wideouts, and a healthy Venric Mark will be more involved in the passing game through swing passes and screens. The question is will they open up the playbook and go downfield to its bigger targets, or throw more to the sidelines in an effort to get their bigger receivers to body-up against defensive backs.

The size and athleticism in Northwestern's recent additions at wide receiver certainly give NU the option to stretch the field more. Christian Jones and Cameron Dickerson both stand at 6-foot-3 and provide big targets over the middle. Kyle Prater has not developed into the deep threat along the sideline that NU had hoped for, but he has one more season to show what he can do with his 6-foot-5, 225 pound frame. Prater is not quick enough to run the middle of the field often, but Pat Fitzgerald could try taking more deep shots along the sidelines with these guys.

Northwestern's offense doesn't need a total overhaul. Last season the offensive line often didn't give Kain Colter or Trevor Siemian enough time to throw deep downfield. The absence of Venric Mark hurt the rushing game, which in turn allowed defenses to drop more men into the secondary. The development of the O-line and running backs should give NU more opportunities to throw downfield.

The 'Cats  just need to mix it up in the passing game. Fitzgerald should use fewer screens and swing passes, and incorporate some more long throws over the middle and down the sideline. The wide receivers have the size and athleticism. Siemian has better protection from an improved offensive line, and Venric Mark maintains a threat in the backfield. All the pieces are there for NU to go deep.