Coming in at No. 7 in our Most Important Players series is superback Garrett Dickerson. Playing behind Dan Vitale as a sophomore last season, Dickerson caught just 12 passes for 124 yards. With Vitale gone to the NFL, Dickerson will likely step into his starting role and has a chance to be a big part of the offense in 2016. Josh Burton and Will Ragatz debate his importance to Northwestern's success.
Josh Burton (Rank: No. 4): I put Dickerson really high on my list, both because I've been expecting him to break out for two seasons and because of how much this offense needs him to be a top-notch pass-catcher. Obviously, with Vitale in the NFL, both Dickerson and the injury-plagued Jayme Taylor move up the depth chart, but I think Dickerson — a former 4-star recruit — will emerge as the starter heading into the fall. Without a reliable wide receiving corps, Clayton Thorson needs a big and effective target over the middle of the field, and Dickerson, who caught just 16 passes combined in his freshman and sophomore campaigns, can be that guy. Northwestern needs him to be that guy who can live up to the high expectations that follow a top recruit.
Will Ragatz (Rank: NR): I won't make the argument that Dickerson isn't an important player for Northwestern, because he is, and I seriously considered including him towards the bottom of my Top 10. But to say he's the fourth-most important on the entire team? I'm not buying it. Sure, he's taking over as the starting superback, a position from which Vitale led the Wildcats in receiving a season ago, but there are a couple problems for me. Dickerson hasn't yet shown that he can be the same caliber of player as Vitale; his route-running and hands have left something to be desired in his first two seasons. As Henry Bushnell has written about, that's where Taylor's skill set comes in. If Taylor stays healthy, he could take most of the targets vacated by Vitale, with Dickerson used more often as a blocker.
JB: That's fair; Dickerson certainly hasn't shown as much use as a pass-catcher in his career as Taylor has. However, I think Dickerson's ceiling is significantly higher than Taylor's, especially in the red zone, because of his size (he has around 20 pounds on Taylor) and due to Taylor's injury history. You mentioned how important it is for him to stay healthy — Taylor missed the whole 2015 season with an ankle injury — but that's much easier said than done. For a superback in Mick McCall's system, the job description involves crisp route-running as a key member of the offense. Dickerson showed improvement with that in his sophomore season, so will Taylor's ankle hold up enough to help him overcome Dickerson's additional year of experience? I'm not so sure.
WR: Admittedly, my position on Dickerson is based on the assumption that Taylor will stay healthy in 2016. If he were to go down again, Dickerson would become very important as a receiver, since Northwestern wouldn't have anyone else with his size and experience. As it stands right now though, Taylor has a chance to be the more effective target for Clayton Thorson, even in the red zone. Although he does weigh less than Dickerson, Taylor is an inch taller than him at 6'4" and has the hands necessary to pull down passes in the end zone. Northwestern also has several wide receivers, like Austin Carr and Flynn Nagel, that can play in the slot and run routes in the middle of the field instead of Dickerson. This is still a run-first offense behind Justin Jackson, and I'm not convinced Dickerson will have a big enough role in the passing game to warrant a top ranking in importance.
JB: It's just hard to assume that Taylor will be able to easily transition back into game speed after a full year off. If Dickerson isn't able to provide a steady option for Thorson, especially when he's under pressure both inside and outside of the pocket, the offense will need to rely on mostly untested targets, which could spell disaster. Northwestern needs Dickerson and Thorson to click and develop a rapport.
WR: Yeah, it's entirely possible that Taylor will be rusty early in the season, leading McCall to go with Dickerson as his pass-catching superback. I do think Dickerson has the potential to be a very good player for Northwestern this season; there's a reason why he had offers from powerhouses like Stanford, Michigan, Alabama, and Ohio State coming out of high school. The question is, can he finally harness that potential and seize the opportunity Vitale's departure has left him with? I'm somewhat doubtful, but we'll find out in the fall.