We've ranked our Top 10 most important players for 2016, and in at No. 9 is Austin Carr, a fifth-year senior wideout. Carr is the Wildcats' only returning starter at a receiver position which struggled immensely in 2015. This season, he is expected to see his role increase as he looks to become Clayton Thorson's top target.
Zach Wingrove (Rank: No. 9): When ranking Northwestern football's most important players for 2016, the staff's near-unanimous choice for the team's most important player this upcoming season was Clayton Thorson. This is clearly a nod toward the passing game, which was underwhelming in 2015 and will need to show significant improvement in 2016 if Northwestern wants to be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten. While a large portion of this burden falls on Thorson, who needs to improve his accuracy and decision making, he will also need to see improvement from his receivers — a position group which many believed to be Northwestern's most disappointing from last season.
If you look at Northwestern's receiving stats from last season, the team's leading receiver, Dan Vitale (who wasn't even a receiver), is gone. Along with Vitale, Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Mike McHugh are all gone. That leaves Carr, who finished second on the team in 2015 with 302 receiving yards on 16 catches, as the team's only receiver with significant experience entering this season. There are plenty of new faces that Thorson will have an opportunity to develop a connection with, seeing that Solomon Vault, Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese moved to wide receiver this past off-season, but the player in the best position to make the jump into Thorson's favorite target is Carr.
Carr wasn't a featured receiver last season, but although his numbers didn't jump off the stat sheet, he was a part of some of the Wildcats' most crucial plays. Without his lunging 23-yard catch on 3rd-and-15, Northwestern wouldn't have beaten Penn State. Furthermore, against Ball State when the Wildcats were clinging to a narrow lead and facing third down, Thorson connected with Carr on a 25-yard fade route in the end zone to put Northwestern up by 11. Although those are only two isolated moments from a long season, both plays occurred in situations where Carr was called upon to deliver in a big moment. This shows that 1) the offense had enough faith in Carr last season to put him on the field during crucial third downs and 2) he was clutch enough to deliver when his number was called. Having a senior leader like Carr, who has at least some experience making plays when the stakes are high, is going to be huge for Thorson as he looks to develop into a more consistent passer.
Will Ragatz (Rank: NR): Northwestern's passing offense absolutely needs to improve in 2016 if the Wildcats want to compete for the Big Ten West title. And yes, some of that improvement needs to occur in the receiving corps. Thorson having weapons that can gain separation, get open, and make plays with the ball would be a big step toward the Wildcats running a successful two-dimensional offense. However, there are two elements that are more important than pass-catchers when it comes to boosting Northwestern's aerial attack: the offensive line and Thorson himself. The line, and especially left tackle Blake Hance, whose importance Inside NU debated Monday, need to provide Thorson a cleaner pocket in which he can make decisions and deliver passes. Most importantly, Thorson needs to improve his decision making and accuracy in his sophomore season.
With that said, the receivers will be important, and Carr, as you mentioned, is starting this season as the most experienced one on the roster. I just don't think he'll end the season as the best. In my rankings, I have former running back-turned wide receiver Solomon Vault as my highest-rated pass-catcher, at No. 6. While Carr has proven he can be a solid possession receiver, Vault's superior explosiveness gives him the potential to be much more valuable to the offense. If we had extended the rankings beyond 10, I may have also ranked Garrett Dickerson above Carr, as offensive coordinator Mick McCall has shown a propensity to heavily involve the superback in his passing game in recent years. It's also not inconceivable that a bigger outside guy like 6'2" senior Andrew Scanlan (who also has 20 pounds on Carr) or even 6'4" redshirt freshman Charlie Fessler follows in Christian Jones' footsteps as Thorson's go-to target instead of the 6'1" Carr.
Carr may well lead the team in receiving if no one else has a breakout campaign, but he's not going to revamp the passing game by himself. The o-line and quarterback are more influential pieces of that puzzle, and I don't even think Carr is the most important of Northwestern's receivers, which keeps him out of my Top 10.
ZW: I'm in agreement with you about the o-line and quarterback play needing to make strides if Northwestern's passing game is going to improve in 2016; however I have to disagree with the statement that receivers aren't as important when looking to boost a passing offense's production. Having a receiving option that can consistently get open down after down can make all the difference in the world for a quarterback, especially one like Thorson who threw the ball away so frequently last season due to his receivers' inability to create separation and catch passes downfield. Could this option be a receiver like Vault or Scanlan? Absolutely. Vault especially has tremendous upside and could thrive in the spotlight now that he's being given an opportunity. However, there are also some question marks that come with both Vault and Scanlan, which makes me hesitant to place too lofty expectations on them without having seen them play at the position consistently. Vault does have tremendous speed and explosiveness. However, we've seen fast players before that have struggled in the passing game because they can't run routes downfield and/or struggle to catch the ball; see Shuler as a prime example. And for Scanlan, height and strength doesn't always equate to success. It certainly gives him an advantage, but we will first need to see if he is capable of gaining separation and getting open when he faces Big Ten-caliber defensive backs. Those qualities may not relate to Vault or Scanlan, and one or both could turn out to be effective receiving options for the Wildcats this season, but the bottom line is we just don't know about either of them.
Going back to the point I made in my earlier argument, what we do know about Carr is that he's been there before. He may not be Northwestern's most physically imposing receiver but as of right now, he's certainly their most reliable. He has made big plays for the Wildcats on multiple occasions, and out of all the receivers on Northwestern's roster, he has the most experience playing alongside Thorson. One element of his game that I also like is that he is capable of getting open downfield. We saw this in his aforementioned touchdown against Ball State and we also saw it early on in the game against Illinois in which he caught a 48-yard pass from Thorson after blowing past an Illini safety.
If Carr continues to convert on long passing plays like this, it will be huge for the Wildcats offense, because it gives the team an option to stretch the field when the safeties start to play in and over-anticipate the run. If you look back on the Northwestern receivers' stats from last season, Carr averaged 18.9 yards per catch, higher than any other player on the team; furthermore, in five games he registered a catch over 20 yards. It has been well-documented that the Wildcats struggled throwing the ball last year, but even more so they struggled to complete medium to long passes. Thorson must be able to throw the ball downfield and convert every now and then because it will keep the defense from completely keying in on the run. In order to do that, he will need to improve his accuracy and have time to throw, but he also needs a receiver that is capable of running good routes, creating separation from defensive backs and catching the ball. More than any other receiver on Northwestern's roster, Carr has demonstrated that he can be that guy and now that he will see his role increase in 2016, I think he can absolutely turn into a consistent receiving option for Thorson who aggravates opposing secondaries due to his ability to stretch the field.
WR: You're right, Northwestern will need to be able to stretch the field to keep defenses from loading eight in the box in against Justin Jackson. But is Carr the best guy to do that? I'm not sure. The former walk-on is a talented route runner with good hands and decent speed, but not the field-stretching, game-changing speed of a guy like Vault. As you've mentioned, Carr has already proven that he can be a dependable option in the passing game, something none of Northwestern's other receiving options this season have done. However, his production last year generally occurred while he was the third or fourth priority for defenses. Carr finished tied with McHugh for fourth on the roster with 16 receptions, trailing Vitale, Jones, and Jackson. In all three of the videos you've included above, Carr is in single coverage with no safety help. This year will be a whole new challenge for the senior. At least to open the season, he will receive more attention from opposing defensive coordinators than any of Thorson's other targets. Can he still consistently get open against teams' best Defensive backs and against teams that are scheming to limit his effectiveness? If other players like Vault, Dickerson, and/or Scanlan (or whoever the other outside receiver ends up being) emerge as solid options requiring defensive focus, Carr will benefit greatly by seeing more of the single coverage he showed he could beat last year. But that's why I don't think Carr is Northwestern's most important receiver, or one of the 10 most important players on the team: progress in the receiving corps needs to be made by the entire unit. The play of that unit will be one of the most interesting offensive storylines to follow this fall.