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Five biggest questions No. 3: Who replaces Austin Carr?

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The Wildcats have some talented options to turn to on the outside.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason recently is underway for Northwestern football, and though there’s well over half a year until the 2017 season opener against Nevada, it’s never too early to take a look at what next year’s team will look like. We continue the series by examining whether Northwestern has the ability to replace All-American wide receiver Austin Carr.

If Austin Carr hadn’t been so good in 2016, we would be talking a lot more about Flynn Nagel. His 40 receptions would have led the team in 2015 and tied for second in 2014. He showed the ability to get open underneath as well as over the top, though he was used much more in the former than the latter.

It’d be easy to say the team will replace Carr by committee. While that may be true statistically — it’s unlikely that we’ll see anyone register 90 catches for over 1000 yards this coming season — it’s not true on the field. You can only have 11 guys out there at once, so you can’t replace one guy with multiple. Someone has to step up into the vacant No. 1 role, and Nagel seems like the leading candidate to be that guy.

Though a little bit smaller than Carr (5-foot-11, 181 pounds compared with 6-foot, 200 pounds), Nagel has the physical attributes to be a legit weapon in Mick McCall’s spread scheme. He showed much-improved hands in 2016 and is really quick. Nagel also showed a propensity to make acrobatic catches on the sideline and a willingness to go across the middle.

While Carr was remarkably consistent in 2016 and rarely missed snaps, Nagel showed the ability to be a lead receiver in a short spurt against Minnesota after Carr went down with an injury suffered as a result of a brutal hit that was ruled as targeting. Nagel finished the game with six catches for a team-high 65 yards and scored a touchdown on a route we saw Carr run plenty of times in his historic 2016 campaign.

The other encouraging sign is that it’s not as if Carr was this hugely talented guy who put up numbers due to his immense physical skill. Rather, Carr and Clayton Thorson worked incredibly hard over the offseason, developing a rapport that turned them into the best pitch-and-catch duo in the Big Ten. With Thorson in his second full offseason as the guaranteed starter, he should be shouldering even more of a load as a leader this offseason, and if he can establish similar chemistry with Nagel, the two could form a potent combination.

Still, Nagel isn’t the only wide receiver returning. The Wildcats lose only Carr and Andrew Scanlan. Here’s a quick primer on the other guys who could help lessen the loss.

  • Macan Wilson had strong bowl game. He was an afterthought at the beginning of his career, but he looks like he could emerge as a starter or at the least as a very important backup. He has good size and speed, and he showed impressive hands against Pitt.
  • Solomon Vault: Switching from running back to wide receiver is no small task. Vault is a talented athlete with great top end speed, but he struggled with drops and didn’t always get the separation at the line of scrimmage he needed to. But with a second full offseason spent exclusively out wide, he should continue to improve, and he certainly has the athleticism to take the jump forward in his senior season.
  • Bennett Skowronek: The big-bodied freshman (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) was the only true freshman to see the field out wide, and he showed good hands and solid route running. He was trusted in a couple of key short-yardage situations and came through. He needs to get stronger, but Skowronek could be an important player as a big target for Thorson, especially in the redzone.
  • Charlie Fessler: Fessler didn’t see the field much, but he, like Skowronek, has a big frame (6-foot-4, 215). One of Fessler and Skowronek has to become a reliable target for Thorson with last year’s biggest target, Scanlan, having graduated.
  • Jelani Roberts: Perhaps the quickest player on the team, Roberts bypassed a redshirt year but hasn’t seen many snaps in his two seasons in a Wildcat uniform. He’s only 5-foot-8 and has had some health issues, but his quickness is undeniable. If McCall can come up with a package that emphasizes his strengths (and includes more than just reverses and fly sweeps), and Roberts stays healthy, he could contribute more.
  • Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Riley Lees both redshirted this season, but they could find roles next year. Chiaokhiao-Bowman has solid size and speed and Lees has one of the most electric high school highlight films you’ll ever see, but he suffered an injury that kept him out of action for much of the year.
  • The Wildcats bring in three freshmen: Kyric McGowan, Jace James and Berkeley Holman.