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Northwestern football spring preview: Who replaces Austin Carr?

Northwestern’s offense will have to recover from losing its go to receiver

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

This time last year, no one was talking about Austin Carr.

Pat Fitzgerald made that abundantly clear earlier this week whenever he was asked about the current state of the receiving corp.

But now it’s a year later, and everybody is talking about Austin Carr, and rightfully so. From walk-on to potential NFL draft pick, Carr had an incredible 2016 season, leading Northwestern in every meaningful receiving statistic, winning Big Ten Receiver of the Year and even earning a spot as a Biletnikoff Award Finalist.

It’s hard to overstate how important Carr was to Northwestern, so let’s do a quick blind player comparison to help prove a point.

Player A: 93 receptions, 1,038 yards, 4 touchdowns

Player B: 90 receptions, 1,247 yards, 12 touchdowns

Both players are fairly even on receptions and yards, but clearly Player B was more useful in the redzone, and had 8 more touchdowns to show for it.

Well, the fun thing here is that Player A is not actually one player, but nine. The stats for “Player A” are the combined stats of all nine receivers who caught passes for Northwestern during the 2015 season. That includes Carr’s measly 16 receptions for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. Player B is clearly Austin Carr’s 2016 season. So he was better than the entire receiving corp was in 2015.

This displays two things, Austin Carr was incredible last season, and his meteoric rise truly was out of nowhere, at least statistically.

So who can make that kind of jump this year? Or more aptly, who can become the go to slot receiver for Clayton Thorson as the offense looks to improve once again?

The answer lies just one player below Carr on the season stats.

It’s junior wide receiver Flynn Nagel.

“Personally, yeah I do think I can step up and fulfill that role,” Nagel said. “It’s going to be tough to fill the role Austin had, I mean he was an unbelievable receiver just obviously by his stats and just the way that he played, he was unbelievable. We’ll see what happens, but personally I do think that I can.”

Nagel was already on his way to becoming a prime target for Clayton Thorson last year, racking up 40 receptions, 447 yards and 2 touchdowns. Those stats would have made him the leading receiver in 2015, and were still good enough for second on the team in 2016. So he’s already off to a stronger start statistically than Carr was over the first couple years of his career.

Using the patented Carr multiplier, Nagel’s 2017 stats would roughly be 225 receptions, 1,846 yards and 12 touchdowns, which probably isn’t going to happen (at least the receptions aren’t), but Nagel could certainly double his 2016 statistics if used the same way Carr was last year.

Nagel is a little smaller than Carr was, he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 181 pounds and Carr is 6-foot-1, 200, but that shouldn’t affect his ability in the slot. Role wise, Nagel should be able to slide right into the spot left by Carr.

“I think the guy that’s primarily going to fill [Austin’s] role is probably Flynn,” wide receiver Solomon Vault said. “Running decision routes and option routes on the inside, he’s more than capable. You guys saw a little glimpse last year when AC went down a couple games, he stepped in and did a really good job.”

However, one of the biggest worries moving forward isn’t how Nagel or the other receivers will be used, but it’s if they’ll have that same close knit relationship that Carr had with Thorson which made the two so effective.

“I think more important than the numbers that Austin has last year, were who he was as a teammate and the trust that Clayton had in him,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that was pretty evident when you watched us play.”

It was more than evident while watching Northwestern play, and at times Thorson’s reliance on Carr would begin get the team in trouble. But more often than not, Carr was open somewhere on the field and ready to move the chains.

“Win or lose, you guys would say to me, ‘how does Austin keep getting open? Why aren’t people doubling him?’ A little bit of that is scheme and a lot of it is timing and ball placement and route running and trust,” Fitzgerald said. “And I think that evolved over AC’s career and I think it evolved especially last offseason through the end of the year with Clayton. So I look forward to seeing not just one guy fall into that level of trust with Clayton. We’ve got to have more than just one.”

Luckily for Pat Fitzgerald, it looks like the whole receiving corp is already working on building the bond with their quarterback both on and off the field.

“We’re already meeting to watch film, with the extra time that we have we’re always hanging out doing stuff together,” Nagel said. “On the weekends we’re going to see a movie, going for food, doing whatever, but I think that’s definitely a big relationship to build on, the quarterback-receiver relationship. So I’m going to keep building that relationship and just watch it progress.”

It can’t be understated how crucial the relationship between Carr and Thorson was for both of their successes last year. The ability to know that your receiver will always be open and to know exactly where he’ll be is incredibly comforting for a quarterback.

“You’ve got to have that extra connection, sometimes that makes all the difference on the field,” Vault said. “It’s a matter of trust, I know a couple of routes last year, AC just ran to a spot and Clayton just threw the ball up because he knew he was going to be there. So sometimes it’s not all about Xs and Os it’s about that trust.”

All of this is of course just what Austin Carr brought to the team on the field, and replacing his locker room leadership will surely be much harder.

However for now, all Northwestern can do is focus on improving the product on the field and building off only its third bowl win in school history.

“Right now I’m just focused on spring ball, getting better myself, helping the younger guys in the room and just working hard,” Nagel said. “When the time comes we’ll see what happens, if I am that guy.”

But if recent history is any indication, Nagel should be just the guy for the job.