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Countdown to Kenosha Question 3: Will Austin Carr make the leap?

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He's the top returning wide receiver.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern officially started its 2016 season by kicking off training camp with a team meeting on Sunday, August 7. The team will be in Evanston for a week and then head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a grueling week of workouts and practices in the summer heat, a time for the team to come together on and off the field. Kenosha will go a long way in determining who wins key position battles, who ends up where on the depth chart and much, much more. It's the equivalent of NFL training camp, except compressed into about one week. We count down the biggest questions—two per day—facing Pat Fitzgerald's team heading into camp.

We continue the countdown with No. 3: Can Austin Carr become a No. 1 wideout?

The weight of reviving Northwestern's stagnant receiving corps will fall heavily upon the shoulders of Austin Carr. He will enter Kenosha as one of the most experienced and the top returning wide receiver on the team. He also finished second on the team in receiving yards to Dan Vitale, who is now a pro. He has risen from walk-on to No. 1 receiver.

But for Northwestern's offense to truly improve next season, it appears that Carr will have to take one step further and become a true top target for Clayton Thorson. Despite his fine season last year, Carr only caught 18 passes, which is not even two per game. Sure, Northwestern did not throw the ball very much, but with Dan Vitale and Christian Jones gone, Carr will simply have to have a bigger role in Northwestern's offense. Let's look at the tape and try to find out what he brings.

Clayton Thorson pass complete to Austin Carr for 17 yds against Eastern Illinois

This was Austin Carr's first catch of the 2015 season. It's a relatively simple 17-yard completion, but as you know, 17-yard completions were few and far between last season. Yes, the play is against Eastern Illinois, but this play is a perfect example of what Austin Carr will have to do in 2016. Carr will have to take on part of the "safety blanket" role that Dan Vitale played last year. When Thorson is scrambling and looking downfield, Carr will be the first receiver he looks at. In this example, Thorson does a good job extending the play and keeping his eyes downfield, and Carr finds a soft spot in the coverage. Later on, we'll see that Carr was exceptional at moving the chains.

Clayton Thorson pass complete to Austin Carr for 44 yds and a TD

Clayton Thorson pass complete to Austin Carr for 25 yds and a TD

These are Austin Carr's two touchdowns from 2015. In the first play, he shows good agility and awareness, and he easily evades the admittedly poor Eastern Illinois defense for the touchdown. The 25-yard pass against Ball State was just a great throw from Thorson, and Carr's ability to get open down the sideline is exactly what Northwestern will need in 2016. Carr burns Ball State cornerback Darius Conaway and makes an easy catch down the sideline. The line gives Thorson great pass protection and allows Carr enough time to fully develop his route. By the time Thorson decides to pull the trigger, it's already far too late for any Ball State defender to recover.

Unfortunately, this was Carr's final touchdown of the 2015 season. Carr—like most of his fellow receivers—just was not a factor in the red zone throughout 2015. To be fair, Northwestern rarely threw the ball in the red zone and was also awful at converting possessions into touchdowns—three redzone touchdown passes (and just 16 touchdowns total) in 40 redzone trips. Of course, it's a chicken-or-the-egg approach. Was the scheme conservative because of the personnel, or was the personnel unable to execute the scheme? Regardless, the wide receivers need to improve, especially when it comes to winning one-on-one redzone battles.

Carr's best asset is his ability to create timely, relatively big plays, even though he's not the type of receiver who will out-muscle or out-run a defensive back to the ball or make highlight reel grabs over defenders' heads. However, Carr was still Northwestern's most explosive wide receiver last season (by IsoPPP) by a large margin and also its most successful. Carr is 6-foot-1 and relies on his agility and route-running to get open. He has good hands. That's why I think his ideal role is as a possession receiver who can occasionally make big plays downfield when he needs to. He's not going to be a great red zone target or become a true deep threat. Someone else will probably have to step up to perform those tasks unless he's reading this article and becomes hell-bent on proving me wrong.

Does that mean he can't be Northwestern's No. 1 receiver? No, he definitely still can be.

Clayton Thorson pass complete to Austin Carr for 14 yards against Minnesota


This is a play where I think Carr's potential as a really good short-yardage, high-efficiency receiver shines through. Northwestern runs a successful bubble screen off a play fake and is able to get Carr the ball in the open field. That's Carr's wheelhouse, and he runs for a first down and plenty of extra yardage after the catch. Minnesota was clearly expecting a run on this play (can you blame them?), with only two defenders guarding the three receivers. Carr is left with acres of space.

The problem with this whole idea of Carr's ideal role as a possession receiver who can work in space is that Northwestern never had the opportunity to play to Carr's strengths in 2015. How many times did Northwestern have a second-and-short? How many times did Northwestern call for a pass on second and short? I don't have the exact numbers, but I'm going to make a reasonably safe assumption and say that did not happen often. The situation that occurred above against Minnesota happened rarely for Northwestern. The Wildcats were 127th (second to last) in the nation in yards per pass and 93rd in yards per rush. Yikes. Usually, teams can get yardage on first down and open up the playbook on second and short. Usually, teams can extend drives and sometimes threaten deep using players like Austin Carr. But with a lack of big plays to keep defenses on their feet and few second-and-short opportunities, combined with Mick McCall's already-conservative playcalling, Carr's opportunities were limited.

However, when the Wildcats were ahead of the chains and willing to dial up the deep ball, Carr showed he could take advantage of any slight defensive mistake. Below, the linebackers and safeties tense up for a split second on the play-action, allowing Carr an easy release downfield. He beats now-NFL safety Clayton Fejedelem and shows impressive giddy-up running by him.
But where Carr excelled last year was as a third down chain-mover. Of his 18 catches, 16 of them went for first downs (counting touchdowns as first downs). Here are a coupe examples. He knows where the sticks are and gets past them.

Of course, if Carr is utilized as more of a specialized receiver than an all-around target, that means he's going to have to take a beating. He has never had health issues in his career, but he's also never had to make more than two catches per game. Northwestern also hasn't had the best luck at keeping wide receivers on the field (see Jones, Christian), which worries me. Hopefully Carr can make the most of his increased workload and stay healthy in 2016.

Northwestern should use Carr more because he brings dependability and shiftiness on offense that nobody else on the roster has at the moment. I don't blame him much for Northwestern's offensive dysfunction last year, and he was probably underutilized and misused during 2015. While he definitely does not have tremendous upside, Northwestern doesn't need tremendous upside right now. Northwestern needs a functional offense that can give some relief to its fantastic defensive unit. Austin Carr can help build a functional offense, whether it's as a safety blanket, a go-to guy or, on occasion, a guy who can stretch the field. On that basis alone, Carr is ready to become Northwestern's No. 1 receiver for 2016.