The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.
Next up is wide receivers. This was probably the worst positional group on the team last year, but there's been a lot of turnover, so who's going to step up in 2016?
Returning Starters (career starts): Austin Carr (Sr.) (10)
Key Losses: Christian Jones, Mike McHugh, Miles Shuler
Other Returners: Solomon Vault (Jr.), Marcus McShepard (Jr.), Flynn Nagel (So.), Jelani Roberts (So.), Macan Wilson (Jr.), Quinn Baker (Jr.), Steven Reese (R-Fr.), Charlie Fessler (R-Fr.), Corey Acker (Jr.), Chad Hanaoka (Jr.), Andrew Scanlan (Sr.), Cameron Green (R-Fr.), Cole Johnson (Jr.)
Incoming Freshman: Ben Skowronek, Riley Lees, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman,
It's time for everyone's favorite Northwestern position group, the wide receivers! This group was pretty much the consensus worst position group of 2015, and it brings almost no one back from last year. That includes Northwestern's actual number one receiver statistically, superback Dan Vitale. The only sure thing returning is Austin Carr, who's gone from walk-on to No. 1 receiver in one year. Carr catches just about everything thrown at him and will have to produce right from the get go. He led all receivers in 2015 with 16 receptions for 302 yards and two touchdowns. Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard are intriguing options in the slot role. Both switched from another position this offseason: running back and cornerback, respectively. The rest of the group is a mess, but Flynn Nagel saw significant action last year before his injury, and might be able to snag the No. 2 spot alongside Carr if healthy. Northwestern also brings in three talented freshman, any of whom might be able to contribute right away. At this point, it's anyone's guess as to which of these players will produce come August.
At this point, there's only one reliable option for Clayton Thorson in the wide receiving corps, and it's Austin Carr. However, Thorson is going to need more than one target, and the speedy Vault should be able to produce out of the slot receiver role. In 2015, Vault actually had more receptions and more yards than any of the returning receivers listed above other than Carr. Vault has the ability to stretch the field and get behind opposing defenses, and has already shown he has sure hands... well kind of.
That is pretty much the perfect scenario for Vault this season. Lining up in the slot and beating the defense deep. If Northwestern can use Vault more like they did during that play, then Vault will have a very successful 2016.
Who will step up and start alongside Austin Carr?
If we assume that Vault and McShepard will take the slot role, that still leaves a hole at the other wideout position opposite Carr. There are a ton of options here and not really one solid answer. Some of the possible options include Nagel, Jelani Roberts, Andrew Scanlan or one of the freshman. Or honestly anyone. Carr wasn't really even on the radar this time last year and now he's the surefire No. 1. Anything can happen. But taking what we do know, Roberts is probably too small to play exclusively on the outside and while Scanlan was impressive in spring ball, that's spring ball. That just leaves Flynn Nagel and the freshman. At this point, since we know very little about the freshman, Nagel will probably be the guy in the No. 2 spot to start the season as long as he's healthy.
|Charlie Fessler/Cam Green
|Ben Skowronek/Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman
|Marcus McShepard/Jelani Roberts
|Steven Reese/Riley Lees
The huge disclaimer that needs to go with this depth chart is that it's basically just a complete guess at what Northwestern will look like going into training camp. Carr is the only spot on the chart that is pretty much set in stone. Even Vault could be vaulted (sorry) by McShepard or Roberts if one of them has a good camp, and McShepard could wind up outside if he really impresses. Basically, you should take this with a grain of salt. Fitzgerald's official depth charts rarely are actual ways to measure who will play most — he likes to rotate guys regardless of their "official" depth chart spot. At one point last year, Macan Wilson was a second-stringer. He didn't catch a pass all year. As mentioned above, Nagel is probably the No. 2 guy right now, but there are plenty of other players who could potentially take that spot as we move closer to the season. Finally, given the state of the position as a whole, it would be a pretty safe bet to say that at least one of the freshman will find meaningful playing time in 2016. At this point, the wide receiving corps is a mess, but it should hopefully become much clearer by the time Northwestern kicks off against Western Michigan. There is a lot of time for any of the receivers to climb their way to the top.