Sometimes less is more.
Last year, the Northwestern Wildcats had more size on the outside than in recent years, but the team's passing game continued to struggle mightily. Of course, the blame cannot fall entirely on the wide receivers. Clayton Thorson struggled in his first year at the helm. The offensive line play was far less than stellar as its parts moved in and out of the lineup almost every week due to injury and inconsistency.
But to say the wide receivers struggled would be an understatement. In general, they were unable to create separation down the field. Even when they did—and got an accurate pass—they struggled to actually bring the ball in. The group posted the worst drop percentage ever by a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team.
While Northwestern brings back its best wide receiver from last year, Austin Carr, it also loses some significant contributors. However, by losing these players, Northwestern actually might be getting better at what was a historically-bad area last year. Here are the wide receivers that contributed at least five catches in 2015 and are not on the 2016 team:
The first thing you notice (other than perhaps how bad these numbers were) is that three of these four guys are big—really big for a team that runs a shotgun-based, uptempo supposed spread offense.
Meanwhile, these players were replaced with three true freshmen (of which any could see significant playing time), but more importantly, they were replaced by speedsters Solomon Vault, who could take over in the slot, and Marcus McShepard, the former cornerback who provides an immediate deep threat. Both are under six feet tall and switched to wide receiver because of their athleticism. Of course, being smaller and more athletic don't necessarily go hand in hand. But for Northwestern's needs in 2016, it's apparent that they do.
Can smaller, more agile wide receivers repair the issues the Wildcats faced out wide last year? It's worth looking into the history books to find out. Mick McCall came to Evanston following the 2007 season. Here have been his units' passing offense S&P+ rankings as well as its top three wide receivers (ranked by number of catches) each year since.
|Year||Passing S&P+ rank||Name||Height||Weight||Rec./Yds./TDs|
In Northwestern's most successful passing season overall (2011), none of the top three wide receivers stood over 6-foot-0. The most successful pass catcher, receptions-wise, in Mick McCall's eight years as Northwestern's offensive coordinator is 5-foot-11, 185-pound Zeke Markshausen. The most successful pass catcher yardage-and touchdown-wise is 6-foot-0, 195-pound Jeremy Ebert.
Now of course, we cannot eliminate the variables outside of the wide receivers, with the biggest one being the quarterback. Early McCall-era guys like C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa had far superior numbers to more recent signal callers Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian and Clayton Thorson and thus are regarded as better college quarterbacks. With better quarterbacks often come better receiving totals. Additionally, the numbers earlier in McCall's tenure are more bloated because the team threw the ball more, and personnel called for that. Recent teams, especially those with Justin Jackson, had more run-first personnel.
It's a chicken-or-egg argument. It's easy to criticize Mick McCall's conservative play-calling, but as you can see earlier in his tenure, his units had impressive numbers through the air. Was it because of his playcalling that receivers put up stellar stats? Or was it because he had better players and thus could call a better, more balanced scheme? It's likely a bit of both—McCall needs to put his players in better positions to succeed, but his players need to be better.
And this year, by reverting back to smaller wide receivers, Northwestern hopes both will.
Of the top six receivers this year, as revealed by the Week 1 depth chart, half—Flynn Nagel, Marcus McShepard and Solomon Vault—are under 6-foot-0.
"We've got a little bit more speed and quickness outside," McCall told Inside NU. "We've got more guys that can run. We've got more guys that can play. There's some pretty good competition."
The two starters under six feet—Nagel (5-foot-11, 181 pounds) and Vault (5-foot-10, 190 pounds)—bring quickness to an attack that lacked just that last year.
Nagel, a sophomore coming off a devastating ankle injury suffered against Minnesota, didn't go full-contact in the spring but has impressed his offensive coordinator.
"He can play a lot of spots," McCall said. "He can play inside. He can play outside. We can move him around. He's a valuable guy because he can fill in a lot of different ways, and he can be an explosive guy, too. He's faster and quicker than you'd think he is. Real savvy guy running routes."
Then there's Vault, who has shown good hands out of the backfield in his first two years in Evanston and will now take that talent to the slot. He has good speed—certainly enough to stretch the field vertically—and he knows what to do with the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his three career kickoff return touchdowns.
"I think the best thing is he's become a better route runner," McCall said. "He knew where he was supposed to go, but getting his shoulders over his toes, sticking his foot in the ground and coming back out of his break, just all those little things getting releases off the press."
The final member of the smaller group is McShepard, the former defensive back. It's a big transition to make, and McCall admitted he's still learning the ins and outs of the position—route-running, getting off the line and scrimmage and catching the ball over the middle. He might be used as almost exclusively a deep threat early in the year as he gets game experience. However, his day-to-day improvement has been clear.
"Every day, he gets better. Every day, he does something a little bit better here and a little bit better there," McCall said. "There'll be some learning things that'll happen, but there've also been some really big plays too. He's a guy who can take the top of it off."
But that doesn't mean that bigger wide receivers aren't important or can't succeed in the McCall-directed offense. Ross Lane, Andrew Brewer and Christian Jones (pre-ACL injury) were all effective receivers who had a season of 50-plus catches under McCall. Even 6-foot-5 Kyle Prater showed what he could do when healthy against Notre Dame in his senior season.
For the 2016 iteration of the Wildcats, those larger receivers are 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior Andrew Scanlan and 6-foot-4, 215-pound Charlie Fessler, though the latter isn't listed on the two-deep.
"Charlie's still a young guy, but there's times when he shows the ability to go up and get the ball and be physical that way," McCall said.
As for Scanlan, the strongest wide receiver on the team, there's been a renewed sense of urgency going into his final season, not only for himself, but for his team. He's been on two 10-2 Northwestern teams. The follow up to the first was disappointing. He'll have a big say in how the response to the second goes.
"We gotta respond to another 10-3 season, and if we respond to it the same way we did three years ago, that's not the way we would want to go out," Scanlan said. "So just keeping the urgency up and understanding that we have to repond to success something that I really pride myself on."
"Andrew, he's a senior, a fifth-year guy; he's worked his fanny off," McCall said. "He's really taken to heart that this is his last opportunity to play football, so he has prepared with a lot of effort and focus."
Of course, until Northwestern hits the field against Western Michigan, it's all talk We have to see it play out on the field. But the losses—of both players and size—at wide receiver looks to be in line with helping this team get back to the success of the early McCall years.