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Northwestern Football 2016 Spring Guide: Wide receivers preview

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This might be the biggest question mark on offense.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.

As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. We continue with the wide receivers.

Personnel

Returning Starters: Austin Carr (Sr.)

Other returning contributors: Andrew Scanlan (Sr.), Macan Wilson (Jr.), RB/WR Solomon Vault (Jr.), Jelani Roberts (So.), Flynn Nagel (So.)

Redshirt freshmen: Cameron Green, Charlie Fessler

Incoming freshmen: Riley Lees, Ben Skowronek, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman

Overview

The wide receiver position has been a very disappointing one for the Wildcats the past few years and was downright awful last season. Christian Jones couldn't find his pre-injury form, the players behind him failed to step up and the most reliable target ended up being former walk-on Austin Carr. Making matters worse, Northwestern loses three of its top four wide receivers from 2015 and about two-thirds of its receiving yardage as well.

The good news for this team is that Carr is returning for his senior season, Flynn Nagel showed some good signs before a gruesome injury, Jelani Roberts showed  — in a small sample size — impressive speed and Solomon Vault is expected to transition to the position. The former running back should be able to help replace what the team has lost with its graduated seniors.

The current wide receiver situation, however, is probably even more dire than last year's at this point. Nagel's health, Roberts's lack of a well-rounded game and Vault's adjustment to a new position are all in question. Behind them, there's a ton of unknowns. Aside from Carr, who likely has a starting role locked down, this group is full of question marks.

Position Battles

Starter outside

Assuming Carr takes one spot and Nagel and/or Roberts occupies the slot, there's a need for a big-bodied wide receiver on the outside, someone in the mold of Christian Jones or Kyle Prater. Northwestern has a couple of guys with similar statures that redshirted last year: Cameron Green and Charlie Fessler. As noted in our Five Questions article, Green (6-foot-3) is a big, physical player with good route-running ability while Fessler (6-foot-4) has impressive straight-line speed and a lankier frame.

There are other candidates, too, though. Vault — although somewhat undersized — has soft hands as well as good speed and agility. Macan Wilson and Andrew Scanlan have a lot of experience in the system. Both incoming freshmen (Ben Skowronek and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman) also have nice size and speed, but might need a year to get used to the college game.

Depth

There are certainly a lot of receivers on this roster — 14 if you count Vault. But does that constitute quality depth? Only 11 of those 14 are scholarship guys, and only six of those 11 have ever seen the field before. Only four of those six even caught a single pass last year. As he does at other positions, Pat Fitzgerald likes to roll in lots of different bodies on the outside and in the slot. Those four returning pass-catchers are guaranteed playing time if healthy: Carr, Nagel, Roberts and Vault. Behind that, who knows?

Burning Question

Can anyone evolve into the number one receiver?

One of the biggest problems with Northwestern's passing attack in 2015 was that players simply couldn't win one-on-one battles on the outside. It's easy to criticize Clayton Thorson for missing throws, as he certainly deserved some of the blame, but his receivers constantly struggled to get open. Even when they did, they had trouble actually catching the ball, which is why no receiver was able to stand out -- no Northwestern wide receiver that saw regular action averaged more than two receptions. Is there a guy on this team who can take the next step and evolve into a No. 1 target, like Prater was in 2014? The task may fall on Carr, Vault, Green or Fessler or perhaps by committee, but this offense desperately needs a consistent playmaker outside the numbers.

Breakout player to watch

Flynn Nagel

The shifty slot man looked to be coming into his own before shredding his ankle against Minnesota. Nevertheless, he was the only true freshmen regularly involved in the offense (Roberts's playing time was sporadic) and he showed improved hands after struggling with drops earlier in the season. If he can get back to where he was at the time of the injury this offseason, he could be a good possession receiver. He runs good routes and has terrific strength for his size. Look for the Lemont, Ill. native to be involved in the short passing game early and often if he can stay on the field.

Depth Chart

1st String 2nd String
X-Receiver Austin Carr Solomon Vault
Y-Receiver Flynn Nagel Jelani Roberts
Z-Receiver Cameron Green Charlie Fessler