Northwestern will be without its star running back and star receiver this season, as the school announced Wednesday that Venric Mark will transfer and Christian Jones is out for the season with a knee injury. The news was devastating to Wildcats fans who already suffered through a season of incredible misfortune last year, only to see it happening again this year.
But all is not lost for NU football this year, as the defense still has the potential to be the best it has been in a long time, and the offense still has a number of weapons. The losses of Mark and Jones will hurt, but this team has depth that arguably no NU team has had before it. If some of the young talent can step up, these losses won't end up ruining NU's season. Here's a look at who will play a bigger role at wide receiver and running back after Wednesday's news.
Wide receiver — Miles Shuler
There is some debate about whose carries go up the most to replace Mark, but there is no debate about which receiver this impacts the most — Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler. Shuler was already having an impressive offseason and figured to be in the rotation, but it's likely now that he will be bumped up to the No. 1 slot receiver in place of Jones.
Jones has been playing in the slot the last two years despite not fitting in there that well. However, it worked because he's a good possession receiver who opens things up across the middle. Shuler is a different kind of player — a more prototypical slot receiver, and a Jeremy Ebert-type of receiver that NU hopes can be the guy who turns a five-yard catch into a 15-yard gain like Ebert often did. Jones was never that kind of player, so this changes NU's slot receiver identity quite a bit.
In trading Jones for Shuler in the starting lineup, NU is trading a proven possession receiver for a more explosive player who has yet to prove himself on the field. Of course, you'd love to have both, but having Shuler as a backup is a nice luxury for the Wildcats, and it allows/forces them to get a little more creative, for better or for worse.
Someone does need to step up and fill Jones' role as a big target over the middle of the field — those third-and-sixes where NU needs a big body in the slot. That's where Kyle Prater and Dan Vitale will need to step up.
Losing Christian Jones hurts, but NU could do a lot worse than to have Shuler, Prater and Vitale pitching in to fill his role. If they all do what they've shown in camp, NU can still have a very solid passing game — and with Shuler playing more, possibly and even more explosive offense.
Running back — Stephen Buckley and the freshmen
The popular pick to get more carries after Venric Mark's transfer is Treyvon Green, since he's technically second on the depth chart. While that's right in that everyone will receive more carries — this will truly be running back by committee — Green doesn't necessarily stand the most to gain from Mark leaving, even though he might end up with the most carries overall.
Green will still do his thing as a reliable runner between the tackles who can also stretch it outside on occasion. But what NU really needs in replacing Mark is a player who can stretch the field and get around the edge. Stephen Buckley proved has year that he has the potential to do that, and he was just starting to emerge during the Nebraska game, when he suffered a terrible knee injury.
While Buckley is expected to be back for week one, he hasn't been able to practice yet, meaning the workload could disproportionately fall on Green and Long's shoulders in the first few games, though I expect him to emerge down the stretch as one of NU's best running threats, if not its best one.
This also provides and interesting opportunity for freshmen Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault. Those two were already in contention to play in their freshman years, and it looks like that's now a given. Both bring something unique to the table.
Vault is arguably faster than Mark, and he's shown his speed at both running back and slot receiver during fall camp. Jackson is a very versatile player who has shown off his agility and his vision so far. From what we've seen in camp, both players absolutely look like they can be effective contributors this season, and they have more potential than any young offensive skill position player that the Wildcats have had in a long time.
Pat Fitzgerald tends to be hesitant about playing freshmen, and if Mark were still in the picture, it would be hard to see Vault or Jackson getting any significant reps in his place. But now, Fitzgerald has much more of an incentive to play the freshmen in a effort to find someone who can stretch the field effectively, especially while Buckley gets back up to speed.