On May 26th, Northwestern’s special teams unit was dealt a serious blow. Solomon Vault’s season-ending lower body surgery forced the Wildcats to fill a gaping hole at kickoff returner. Vault’s game-breaking kickoff return abilities have proved vital in the last three years. His 95-yard kickoff return touchdown last year against Michigan State broke the game open just after Michigan State had mounted a small comeback. IN 2015, his touchdown against Duke completely turned the game around. Vault was able to use his speed and big-play ability to change the momentum in key spots. Without him the two games mentioned above and others would have been in serious doubt.
In Vault’s absence, Northwestern needs somebody to try to fill his shoes in the return game. Seemingly, the top two options are Jelani Roberts, a junior who came into the program with serious promise and a 4.39 40 time. However, Roberts only touched the ball four times last year.
When Pat Fitzgerald was asked about the return game, he indicated that the spot, like many on the roster, was wide open: “You know we’ve had Jelani back there, we’ve had a number of different guys in the past, but I look forward to seeing some of our young skill guys...Jesse Brown, Jeremy Larkin, does Flynn Nagel maybe have that role...and then I gotta figure out, from a true freshman standpoint, who can really make an impact there,” Fitzgerald said.
Brown and Larkin are redshirt freshmen running backs and potential return men of the future. Larkin, the more highly-rated recruit of the two, was a late flip from Cincinnati who drew some comparisons to Venric Mark, rushing for an astounding 10.4 yards per carry in his senior year of high school and reportedly running a 4.45 40. Brown, who posted an identical 40 time, doesn’t carry with him quite the recruiting cache of Larkin but could follow in Mark’s footsteps as well, as his stature and explosiveness are comparable to that of the Northwestern star and current recruiting assistant.
Roberts is another guy who drew comparisons to Mark when he signed with Northwestern initially (I’m starting to sense a pattern...). The true junior stands just 5-foot-8 but has shown some promise in his Northwestern career thus far, despite not getting very many touches. In his brief career thus far, Roberts has just one kickoff return for 19 yards, but with his speed and agility, Fitzgerald and his staff would be remiss not to give him a chance to show them what he can do on the open field.
Nagel has had by far the most chances of any of those mentioned by Fitzgerald. The junior, who will almost certainly figure heavily into the offense as a receiver, had 5 kickoff returns last year, average 19.6 yards per return. The explosive ability is certainly there for Nagel, but the coaching staff may opt to give others a chance so that he can focus more on returning punts and receiving.
As far as true freshmen go, Jace James and Kyric McGowan stand out, as both are explosive offensive players who won’t have much room to contribute outside of special during their first year. Pat Fitzgerald has mostly used offensive skill positions as feeders for the kickoff return in his coaching tenure, so there aren’t too many defensive players who could potentially fill the role.
Fitzgerald did not mention Oregon transfer Jalen Brown. The slim Oregon graduate transfer didn’t do any returning in Eugene, but his explosiveness and pedigree as a former four-star recruit with a big list of offers made it a possibility.
As Fitzgerald said, the ’Cats “didn’t do a lot of [return game work]” in spring practice,” so the “really important,” spot of kick returner is wide open. The return game has been a bright spot for generally mediocre Northwestern special teams over the last decade, and for it to remain so after Solomon Vault’s injury, one of the players listed above will have to step up.