The InsideNU spring guide is back as we get set for Northwestern's spring football practice. Practice starts February 25 and runs through the spring "game" on April 11, with a break for finals and the school's regularly scheduled spring break. We'll run through each position unit to let you know what to watch once practice begins.
Returning Starters: Cameron Dickerson (SR), Christian Jones (RS SR), Miles Shuler (SR)
Other Returning Players: Corey Acker (RS SO), Quinn Baker (RS SO), Austin Carr (JR), Tom Fuessel (RS SO), Mike Gorogianis (RS SO), Cole Johnson (RS SO), Mike McHugh (JR), Andrew Scanlan (JR), Macan Wilson (RS SO), Pierre Youngblood-Ary (SR)
Incoming Recruits: Charles Fessler, Cameron Green, Flynn Nagel, Steven Reese, Jelani Roberts
Biggest Question: Will Christian Jones be the Christian Jones of 2013?
Last year was a dark time for the Northwestern wide receiving corps. It started before the first game, when senior Christian Jones went down with a knee injury and would have to take a medical redshirt. That was only the start of it for the Wildcats.
The Cal game was a perfect how-to guide on how not to catch footballs when they hit you in the hands. Siemian undoubtedly had his struggles last year, but all too frequently, Siemian would deliver well thrown balls that would glance off shoulder pads or gloves of his targets before hitting the turf. His receivers did him no favors. I mean who could forget Miles Shuler’s drop in the endzone against NIU?
The biggest question is still the health of Christian Jones. When healthy, Jones has been a great wide receiver for NU. In his last full season, he caught 54 balls for 668 yards and 4 scores. He’s a big target at 6-3 and, perhaps more importantly, is the most polished route runner Northwestern has.
After Jones, NU has physically talented guys who still haven’t become great wide receivers yet. Cameron Dickerson is a hoss, but his route running leaves much to be desired and his hands are no better. Shuler is hyper quick, but is undersized (hence injury prone) and has a worse set of hands than Dickerson. Those two guys need to get serious reps on the jugs machine in the spring. I’d also like to see a bigger emphasis on working back to the quarterback in scramble situations. Too many times when plays broke down last year, wideouts would stand and watch as Siemian tried to get out of dodge. With a presumably more mobile QB, working to get open after the play is broken will be important.
NU loves 4 and 5 wide receiver sets, and there should be some competition for those last spots. Austin Carr, Mike McHugh, and Pierre Youngblood-Ary (who should make every Big Ten All-Name Team) all got a lot of snaps last year, but didn’t really make a huge impact in the stat book. Youngblood-Ary got loose for a Zack Oliver touchdown pass against NIU and Mike McHugh had a Odell Beckham-esque grab on the sideline against Iowa, but that was about it. With some talented players coming up behind them, there should be some camp battles for the rotation guys.
I still think we see at least one, maybe two true freshmen get their shirts burned and get some snaps this year. 247 ranks Flynn Nagel and Cameron Green as the two highest ranked recruits, so the easiest (and probably best) prediction is that those are the two who are most likely to get time. Still, Charlie Fessler is a huge body at 6-4 and Jelani Roberts has true burner speed and can play special teams, so there is some depth in this class. NU, up until this last class, has been light on the wide receivers and we’re beginning to see the lack of talent shine through. In order for Oliver/Thorsen/Alviti to have a good year, this group is going to have to take a big step up.
During last year's wide receiver struggles, Pat Fitzgerald noted that as long as the receivers continue to underachieve, the younger guys will get a chance to beat them out. Nobody at the position is really safe. Cameron Dickerson needs to hold onto the ball, Miles Shuler needs to catch the ball and the young guys need to show what they can do. Expect a lot of competition here throughout the spring, summer and early fall.
Our best guess at the depth chart
H-Receiver — Miles Shuler, Solomon Vault/Stephen Buckley/Jelani Roberts
Y-Receiver — Christian Jones, One of the freshmen?
Z-Receiver — Cameron Dickerson, Pierre Youngblood-Ary
X-Receiver — Mike McHugh, Andrew Scanlan