To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2015. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the power of democracy, and come up with a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who have to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
Only two players remain in the countdown, and our second most important player in 2015 didn't even play in 2014. Jason Dorow and Michael Odom discuss the return of Christian Jones:
Jason Dorow (Jones Rank: 13): It's no secret; Northwestern is slim at wide receiver. Kyle Prater and Tony Jones - who are both out the door and vying for NFL roster spots - accounted for approximately one third of Northwestern's receptions and receiving yards last season. While that's a lot of production to be made up for, the return of Christian Jones from a redshirt season offers a lot of promise.
After tearing his ACL last August, Jones is still dealing with issues in the same knee. During the recovery process, he aggravated the cartilage damage that occurred in the original injury. Although the timetable for his return is flexible, Jones will likely be out until August. If Jones can fully recover from this injury and return to 2013 form - when he caught 54 balls for 668 yards - Northwestern has their top target back. Even if he's not as explosive as he used to be, Jones will still have one of the most reliable sets of hands among the receiving corps. So Michael, what makes Christian Jones so important to NU in 2015?
Michael Odom (Jones Rank: 2): You've answered your own question, Jason. If Jones can return to 2013 form, the ‘Cats have a legitimate number one receiver. If not, whoever starts at quarterback will lack an outside go-to threat.
Christian Jones is the same size as Terrell Owens on paper at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. Assuming he can stay healthy, his NFL size and route-running ability will make him Northwestern's most draftable player after this season. Jones is not only a big receiving target, but he's also a tenacious blocker on the perimeter. People usually don't talk about wideouts in the running game, but a guy who consistently takes out defensive backs and takes on linebackers can be the difference between six yards and six points. A healthy Jones is one of Northwestern's few impact players who opposing coordinators must gameplan for.
Jason Dorow: I totally agree with you about Jones's importance in run blocking. Northwestern's big play ability out of the backfield was stunted last year due to the receiving corps' inability to block at the point of attack. Imagine how dangerous Justin Jackson, Auston Anderson and Solomon Vault will be if the ‘Cats can get them in space with solid blocking.
That said, I don't think Jones is anywhere near the second best player on the team - especially coming off injury - and I don't think NU's offensive production as a whole falls that much on his shoulders. Cameron Dickerson, Miles Shuler and Dan Vitale are all decent route runners, and as a believer of regression/progression to the mean, I doubt we will see as many drops this season. Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary, while inexperienced, have looked decent along the sidelines, and Youngblood-Ary has the size and athleticism to beat defenders deep.
Plus, the backfield owns the fire power this season. NU has a trio of receiving threats looming back there with Vault, Anderson and Garrett Dickerson. Between Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson (or whoever the starting QB is), you have two vital pieces as well. Even if Jones matches his stats from 2013, which seems unlikely, he's not outproducing 2014 Kyle Prater by much. And Kyle Prater was nowhere near the second most important player on the roster this past season.
Michael Odom: I agree that Jones is not the second best player on the team, nor do I think he's the second most vital (as losing Justin Jackson or the quarterback would be a larger blow). I do, however, believe that Jones can be the biggest difference-maker on this offense if he plays to his potential. Last year, Northwestern suffered from a lack of playmakers, specifically at wide receiver. Jones has proven that he can make plays.
Though his 2013 statistics are only marginally better than Prater's 2014 numbers, it's important to note that in 2013 Northwestern had other receiving options in veterans Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones, who combined for over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. Jones should get more balls thrown his way with this year's humble receiving corps. He's a flat out better player than Kyle Prater; assuming he stays healthy he'll put up bigger numbers.
The other receivers/backs you mentioned have a better chance to thrive with a true number one receiver on the field to occupy the secondary. Perhaps more importantly, whichever inexperienced quarterback running the show will need a go-to-guy they can count on. Healthy Christian Jones makes the whole offense better. No Christian Jones could result in a 2014-esque offensive attack, and nobody wants to see that.
Where would you have ranked Jones? And where does he rank among the offensive players?