It was a relatively quiet offseason in Evanston. There were no additions nor subtractions to the coaching staff (again), there was no quarterback competition, and the union talks were finally put to rest.
In fact, perhaps the most significant offseason storyline unfolded back in late February, when it was announced that Marcus McShepard, along with Steven Reese, would be moving from the defensive side of the ball to wide receiver.
The various offensive advanced statistics for Northwestern in 2015 were ugly. From overall offensive S&P+ (111th out of 128) to Isolated Points per Play (109th) to even success rate—a simple measurement of whether a play was successful or not (see the link for details)—(113), it was a rough year with a freshman quarterback, underwhelming wide receivers and an inconsistent, underachieving offensive line.
Interestingly, however, Northwestern had one of the Big Ten’s most explosive wide receivers in 2015: Austin Carr. The former walk-on’s Isolated Points per Play ranked fifth in the conference behind Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo and Carlton Agudosi, Iowa’s Tevaun Smith and Nebraska’s Brandon Reilly among wide receivers with at least 10 receptions.
That stat can be misleading, though, especially in Carr’s case. He had an unusually high success rate, caught 64 percent of his targets—most among Northwestern receivers with double-digit receptions—and reeled in 18 catches, certainly not a conclusive sample size. Nonetheless, it’s an encouraging sign for a guy who showed No. 1 potential last year and will be expected to fill that role in 2016.
But Carr isn’t a guy who will take the top off the defense with any sort of consistency. His best work comes in situational roles, especially on third down.
And that’s precisely where McShepard comes into play.
Measured with mid- to high- 4.3 40-yard dash speed, McShepard has the straight-line speed to take the top off the defense.
“Once defenders realize that, they tend to respect my speed and back off a little bit,” McShepard said. “And also I feel like I’m pretty good after the catch, so that’s another thing the defense really needs to be aware of.”
Even though it’s been nearly four years since he saw game action on the offensive side of the ball, his high school highlights show those skills.
It’s a breath of fresh air for a team that heavily featured bigger and perhaps stronger, but much slower wide receivers like Christian Jones and Mike McHugh last season.
The transition from the defensive backfield to wide receiver isn’t an easy one, though, even for someone with the impressive physical skills of McShepard.
“The biggest thing really is mental: learning all the plays, adjustments,” he said. “We only run a certain amount of things on defense; offense, we have a lot of different options in the route itself.”
Still, the redshirt junior has drawn high praise for his ‘want-to’ and willingness to adapt to a new environment.
“He’s gonna make a difference, there’s no question, athletically, experience of playing at the collegiate level,” Fitzgerald said at Northwestern’s team media day. “But he’s just learning. That’s the best way to describe Marcus right now. Every day is something new, but he’s doing a really really good job picking the system up.”
Luckily for McShepard, he’s not the only one having to pick up the new system, and he, Solomon Vault and Reese have some solid senior leaders to look to in Austin Carr and Andrew Scanlan, both of whom welcomed the trio with open arms and got to work in the film room immediately.
“It’s great to have him on the offensive side now, not going against him,” Scanlan said. “It’s real cool to see him grow as a wide receiver. Marcus is an unbelievable guy, unbelievable character. He’s always been driven since he got here. He’s one of my really good friends on the team and he can really provide something special week in and week out.”
But it’s not as if McShepard is only a student in the film room. An experienced cornerback who saw action in 20 games at the position over his first two years of eligibility, he also serves as a teacher to his peers.
“I can kind of explain to the other receivers what the defenders want to do to us and what they’re trying to force us to do.”
In order to become fully integrated with the offense, though, McShepard building trust with Clayton Thorson over the offseason was paramount. He did just that as much as possible as one of the top attendees at extra throwing and film sessions hosted by the starting quarterback.
“Obviously he’s a fast guy, one of the fastest guys on the team,” Thorson said. “To have that on our side is a big weapon, something that every offense needs to have and he adds that to us.”
The speed that he’s drawn rave reviews for was on display at practice on August 10, the only practice thus far that has been open to the media. In one-on-one drills, McShepard blew past a corner on a double move. He also hauled in a deep pass from Thorson on 11-on-11 drills.
At this time last year, if you had asked to have the starting quarterback to throw to a legit deep threat, it would have been impossible; both were non-existent. And while McShepard still has a way to go to mastering the playbook—keep in mind the team got 15 practices in the spring and is fewer than 10 practices into the fall camp at this point—that alone is promising as the Wildcats try to rebuild their passing attack.
“Our offense, there are some deep-play guys that can go make some plays happen, but everybody has to be a possession guy, too,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “You know, he’s growing into those situations but yeah, you know, he’s a guy that can take the top off.”
Stats aside, a legitimate deep threat makes an offense immeasurably more difficult to defend. Even pre-snap, as McShepard mentioned, defensive backs have to honor his speed and back off, leaving more room for running lanes—Justin Jackson faced far too many eight- or nine-man boxes last year with the lack of a deep threat present. In the passing game, a deep threat forces defensive backs to stick tightly to the receiver down the field, opening up the underneath routes. Without even touching the ball, McShepard can make a difference.
After Thorson concluded his interview, he jogged back over to the center of Hutcheson Field and began arching deep spirals to McShepard, along with a few other receivers, with the sun setting and the Chicago skyline in the background. Northwestern hopes beautiful scenes like these (even sans defenders) help to fix what was the ugliest aspect of an unsightly Northwestern offensive attack last year. If the returns so far are any sign of what’s to come, Marcus McShepard will be a big part of that.