In just 15 seconds, the stinging noise in Spartan Stadium fell to a transfixed lull. The 75,000-plus fans in attendance halted in disbelief.
Michigan State, meet Solomon Vault.
Vault — Northwestern’s running back-turned-wide receiver and kick returner extraordinaire — took the kickoff off the bounce and dashed 95 yards to the end zone, giving the Wildcats a nine-point lead just after Michigan State had scored its second touchdown in under four minutes.
At his best, Vault is a momentum-killer, a game-breaker and a blur. He’s the best kickoff returner the Chicago area has seen since Devin Hester. Offensively, his role isn’t quite as clear. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, his size fits the profile of a slot receiver, but his dizzying straight-line speed would be more useful on the outside. Regardless, Vault has a skill set unlike the other wideouts on Northwestern’s roster.
And next season, Northwestern will be without that skill set.
Vault will miss the entire 2017 season after undergoing surgery for a lower-body injury, a team spokesman told InsideNU Friday.
Losing Vault isn’t devastating, but it will hurt, especially on opposing kickoffs. He averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return last season, which was good for 30th in the FBS and third in the Big Ten — and that was a down year. Northwestern has some potentially solid options to replace him — Auston Anderson, Jelani Roberts and Marcus McShepard come to mind as possible candidates for the role — but none of them are experienced. Aside from Vault, Flynn Nagel is the only player on the roster who has returned more than one kickoff, and he has only returned five. The problem is that Nagel is already the team’s primary punt returner and will likely be Clayton Thorson’s No. 1 receiver. Putting him back on kickoffs would be a massive injury risk, not to mention probably too much work for one player.
Roberts and Anderson are both quick, explosive players, but it would be difficult to see either matching Vault’s production on the return team. Anderson has never returned a kick in college, but his background as a track star suggests he could be effective if he learns the nuances of the return game. Roberts and McShepard each have one career return, making them the prohibitive favorites.
On offense, the Wildcats should be able to withstand Vault’s absence. Nagel and Macan Wilson were both more productive pass-catchers than Vault was last season, and both have shown the ability to get behind a defense. They don’t provide the same caliber-deep threat that Vault does, but both are more polished route-runners than Vault, and are more consistent on short-to-intermediate routes.
One possible positive that could come from Vault’s injury is the opportunity for more inexperienced players to get more playing time. Riley Lees is one of these players. Lees impressed in spring practice, and could fill the role of ‘offensive weapon’ by making an impact on bubble screens, reverses and quick-hitting routes. Roberts, who is one of the few players on the team who may be as fast as Vault, could fill a similar role, though durability is a concern for him. The development of sophomore Bennett Skowronek will also be more important now, and Clayton Thorson’s rapport with superback Garrett Dickerson will need to continue to grow to combat Vault, Austin Carr and Andrew Scanlan being gone next season.
His most logical replacement, though, might be a former Oregon Duck. Jalen Brown, the grad transfer who was a former four-star recruit, has great speed on the outside but slightly better size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds). If he can find the talent that made him such a highly touted prospect and develop a rapport with Thorson, Brown could more than make up for the loss of Vault. Still, it’s a tough blow to any wide receiver corps to lose a guy who can blow past man coverage on the outside.
Not having Vault will certainly be a setback. He’s one of a select few players on Northwestern who can electrify a stadium with one play. At this point in the offseason, any injury, let alone a season-ending one, is disappointing. Of course, you feel for Vault, who has put in so much work this offseason, and hope he makes a full and complete recovery and is ready for a breakout year in 2018. As Northwestern heads into the summer — and one of its most important seasons in recent memory in Thorson’s junior season — the team will be down one of its top athletes.
But If Pat Fitzgerald can find a solid replacement at kick returner and the theoretical depth at wideout materializes, this shouldn’t be an injury that derails Northwestern’s Big Ten West title dreams.