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Film Room: What makes Austin Carr so good?

The senior wideout has posted video game-like numbers this season, but why?

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

If you told Pat Fitzgerald three years ago that Austin Carr, his redshirt freshman walk-on wide receiver from northern California, would become one of the best pass-catchers in the Big Ten during his senior season, he would have thought you were insane. But if you did in fact made a wager on that statement, you’d be a wealthy person right now.

Carr came to Northwestern without any acclaim at all, redshirted his true freshman season and didn’t even play during his redshirt freshman campaign. Then, he caught seven passes in 2014, 16 passes in 2015 and, so far during the 2016 season, has 50 catches for 720 yards and nine touchdowns. All three of those statistics lead the Big Ten.

Certainly a major part of Carr’s meteoric rise from afterthought to star has been his improved chemistry with quarterback Clayton Thorson, and Thorson’s own development at the position. Still though, that just doesn’t explain everything. Give Thorson credit, but when Carr is open so often every Saturday, there has to be something he’s doing right.

To figure out what that skill, that intangible, which has made Carr so dominant this season, let’s take a look at the film.

This is the touchdown that puts Northwestern up 14-0 early in the first quarter against Indiana. It’s a simple trips formation out of which Carr runs a post route right up the middle. Indiana’s defense doesn’t pick him up, and it’s an easy 34-yard touchdown. Nothing too special.

But why didn’t Indiana pick up Carr, Northwestern’s best receiver, when he runs right in the middle of the field? It’s not because Macan Wilson runs an out route toward the sideline, or because Flynn Nagel sprints down the field on a fly. It’s because of what happened the drive before.

With a similar play setup, Carr runs the route Wilson did on the later play, while Thorson hits Nagel on a button-hook. Knowing how good Carr is, especially on downfield routes, Indiana defensive back Marcelino Ball (No. 42) flinches when Carr heads toward the sideline, leaving Nagel wide open in the middle.

It’s that split-second decision Ball has to make — whether to try and check Carr on the harmless out route or contest Nagel in the middle — which is why Austin Carr is so important for this Northwestern team. Just the threat of Carr catching a pass and potentially earning yards after the catch allows his teammate to get an uncontested reception.

Then, when the Wildcats run a similar play just a few minutes later, Marcus Oliver is caught defending the short route Nagel ran before, allowing Carr to burst through the middle for a 34-yard touchdown. Like a Nile crocodile, he lulls defenders to sleep and then, when the moment’s right, attacks for a game-changing play.

So where was this Austin Carr last season, or the season before that? He was useful in his sophomore and junior campaigns, but seems like a completely different player. Godwin Igwebuike, following the Ohio State game on Saturday, said as much.

“He definitely made an effort over the offseason to be better,” Igwebuike said with regards to Carr. “In earlier years, he wasn’t really battling with us defensive backs...Now, week in and week out, he’s a guy that makes us better. It’s pretty cool to see.”

This reinforces what Pat Fitzgerald, Clayton Thorson and other players/coaches have said all year about Carr as he has become the most prolific pass-catcher in the Big Ten. He’s a more explosive player that is constantly getting open, likely due to his increased speed, and when he does get open, he rarely drops the pass and uses his strength to break tackles.

Carr posted another gaudy statline against Ohio State with eight catches for 158 yards (but no touchdowns, snapping his six-game scoring streak). Almost half of his damage came on the third quarter Northwestern scoring drive that was capped off by a Garrett Dickerson touchdown catch. In the play above — in another trips formation, sense a trend? — Carr roasts Damon Webb (No. 7) on a seam route.

The Buckeyes are in man defense, but Webb — showing Carr some respect for the shorter passes Thorson throws him to set up plays like this one — gives an eight-yard cushion. This allows Carr to accelerate right by Webb, who’s stuck on his back feet, and results in a big play.

This is a play from the same drive, with the same exact formation, and Carr beats Webb with ease, again. The two plays look almost identical: Webb gives Carr an eight-yard cushion, Carr runs a post route right by him and Webb is stuck chasing his man down the field.

Ohio State, one of the best defenses in the country, saw the same formation from Northwestern twice in the same drive. The Buckeyes made almost no adjustments and the same thing happened. The only difference with the second play was that Carr easily shook off safety Malik Hooker and probably got into the end zone — that line judge made a clear mistake on that call.

Here’s another great example of how Carr’s ability to go over the middle helps him set up free releases to the outside. The senior runs a fantastic route here for Northwestern’s 53rd (!!!) point in East Lansing. Once he senses a tiny breakdown — the cornerback opening his hips here — he takes advantage.

For defenses, Carr is a nightmare. Mick McCall can utilize him in the short passing game to great effect, especially along the sideline. He usually establishes that early, forcing defenses to open things up for other receivers in the middle of the field.

Then, opening up the playbook is when Carr drops the hammer on the opposing defense as he breaks open huge plays. Just staying with Carr, especially in man coverage, is a hard task, and then there’s figuring out a way to tackle him. That’s very difficult for any defense to do, and almost impossible to do without laying off one of Northwestern’s other weapons, like Flynn Nagel or Garrett Dickerson.

Carr’s presence alone makes things much easier for the Northwestern offense and he only seems to be improving as he observes more and more how defenses guard him. As long as he and Clayton Thorson stay on the same page, Carr will continue to put up huge numbers and open up space for his teammates as well.