Two catches for 33 yards.
That was the stat line for Pierre Youngblood-Ary, Northwestern's leading receiver at the Outback Bowl. And that stat line represented the Wildcats' biggest flaw in 2016: They completely lacked any sort of potent passing game.
Northwestern's offensive difficulties have been well-documented. To combat them, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff have already started to make some changes for 2016. Last week, Fitzgerald announced that Solomon Vault, Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese were all moving to wide receiver, adding three new possible solutions to Northwestern's pass-catching problems. But will Northwestern's new offensive players prove to be impactful?
"They're going to be important to our success offensively, no question," Fitzgerald said Tuesday.
Northwestern must find some production at wide receiver heading into the 2016 season with Dan Vitale graduating. Of the returning pass-catchers, Austin Carr was the only one to develop a meaningful rapport with quarterback Clayton Thorson last season. That's why Vault, McShepard and Reese have been brought in to compete with other returning wideouts.
Vault played running back and returned kicks in his first two years in Evanston, and will have the easiest transition to receiver. He was moved to receiver at the outset of bowl practices, and coming out of high school was seen by some as an option in the slot.
McShepard and Reese were both defensive backs and have not had any in-game experience on offense since high school. But with Northwestern's positional logjams at their old positions, the moves make perfect sense, even if it does speak to Northwestern's dearth of established receiving options.
"It'll be real competitive when we all get back and all get healthy," Reese said Tuesday. "Tons of competition. Good competition, which is what the receiver group really needs."
Of the three, Vault appears to be the favorite to get the most looks next season. Vault caught 11 passes for 95 yards out of the backfield as a true sophomore, which put him eighth in receiving yards on the team. He has demonstrated his raw speed and ability to evade defenders on kickoff returns. The move to receiver should allow offensive coordinator Mick McCall to find more ways to get Vault the ball in space. And his hands, as demonstrated by this non-catch against Minnesota in 2015, may be underrated:
"I was recruited as a slot receiver," Vault confirmed Tuesday. "But Coach Springer says if I want to get on the field more I'm going to have to learn both outside and inside." Vault also expects to continue returning kicks for Northwestern in 2016.
Like Vault, McShepard's best asset will be his speed. McShepard was the nickel corner at times last season, and acquitted himself well in coverage when he played. However, with Northwestern's depth at corner, he was going to remain in a nickel role in 2016. His physical skills should translate well to receiver, but McShepard will have much to learn before the start of the season.
"It's a process," wide receiver coach Dennis Springer said. "We're in day number four on the field in that process for him and we have a long way to go."
McShepard is listed at 5-foot-11, but with his straight-line speed could be an option either inside or outside. While Northwestern does not exactly need another smaller wide receiver with plus speed, the lack of other options means that McShepard could surpass others on the depth chart. Fitzgerald said last Tuesday that he will "compete to start."
Reese redshirted last season, and made a name for himself on the
dance floor sideline, but he appears to have the length and size to play on the flanks for Northwestern. We haven't seen Reese play and we won't see him play this spring, as he picked up a non-contact injury and is out for spring ball. However, the coaching staff clearly thinks he can contribute on the offensive end. Reese played safety and wide receiver in high school, and not only played there during bowl practices, but impressed.
In the end, will the new additions provide enough help for Northwestern's offense? We're a long way away from that answer. All three players have the ability to become significant contributors to Northwestern's passing offense. While they're unlikely to develop into dominant No. 1 receivers, especially in their first years at the position, they can all provide an upgrade over Northwestern's other returning options.
Vault should have the largest role on the offense out of the three, but Reese and McShepard are also capable. Whatever the case, the coaching staff has clearly not been happy with the performance of its receivers, so all three newcomers to the position will get every opportunity to play right away.