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2017 Northwestern football position previews: Wide Receivers

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Austin Carr is gone. Now what?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2017 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart.

We continue rolling along with a unit that could have a big say in how successful Northwestern’s 2017 season becomes: the wide receivers.

Overview

Returning starters (career starts): Flynn Nagel (11)

Other returners: Macan Wilson, Bennett Skowronek, Jelani Roberts, Charlie Fessler, Steven Reese, Lloyd Yates (formerly a QB)

Key losses: Austin Carr, Andrew Scanlan, Solomon Vault (hurt, out for season)

Grad transfer: Jalen Brown (25 games played at Oregon)

Redshirt freshmen: Riley Lees, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Jackson Tirmonia

True freshmen: Jace James, Berkeley Holman, Kyric McGowan, Will Lansbury

Northwestern enters the 2017 season with the unenviable task of replacing three key wideouts, one of them arguably the best receiver in the country. Austin Carr, whose incredible, record-breaking season captured our hearts in 2016, is a New England Patriot. Andrew Scanlan (graduation) and Solomon Vault (leg injury) won’t be available this year, either. That’s 134 catches, 1742 yards, and 14 touchdowns (about 70 percent of which came from Carr) that Pat Fitzgerald and position coach Dennis Springer need to make up for.

As you can see in the sheer volume of names presented above, Northwestern isn’t short on wide receivers. What Northwestern is short on, however, is proven, experienced wide receivers. Of the 15 on the 2017 roster, seven freshmen have obviously never played in a college game. One player (Reese) has only appeared on special teams. One (Yates) used to be a quarterback. Four caught passes for Northwestern last season, with only Nagel and Wilson reaching double digits. Just two (Nagel and Roberts) caught a single pass for the Wildcats in 2015. That makes this unit one of the biggest question marks for Pat Fitzgerald heading into the 2017 season. Still, there is reason for optimism. Nagel, Wilson, and Skowronek were all at least moderately involved in the passing game a season ago, and each one showed signs of improvement over the course of the year. There are a number of intriguing young talents on the roster. Oh, and Brown, a former four-star recruit with an insane offer sheet out of high school, has the potential to be even better than another WR transfer from the Pac-12, Kyle Prater, was in 2014. The former Duck’s size and speed could become a major weapon if he can develop a connection with Clayton Thorson.

Key Player: Flynn Nagel

Austin Carr had 402 yards and 2 touchdowns in two seasons before a breakout year as the No. 1 option.

Flynn Nagel has 494 yards and 2 touchdowns in two seasons and enters 2017 as the No. 1 option.

No pressure.

Okay, time to come back to reality. While Nagel is in a very similar spot as Carr was a year ago, it’s pretty ridiculous to expect the former to pull off a repeat of what the latter was able to accomplish in 2016. We knew Carr was the only proven commodity at the position coming into last year, but by no means did we expect anything close to the season AC80 had. That’s what makes sports fun; several things happen every year that you wouldn’t have dreamed of predicting in the offseason. It would be unreasonable and unfair to hold Nagel to the standard set by Carr.

Still, let’s talk about the junior from Lemont, IL. Nagel, at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, has a slightly smaller build than the 6-foot-1, 200 pound Carr, but showed the ability to play both in the slot and out wide last season. He’s an excellent route runner with good hands, but his 61.5% catch rate will have to come up for Nagel to excel. We should have a full film study on Nagel coming sometime this month, but here are a couple clips that demonstrate his abilities.

That’s a great throw by Thorson, but a perfect route by Nagel, who makes the catch for his second career touchdown. His first career touchdown was the result of a blown coverage against Michigan State, but he made several other impressive plays during a 5-catch, 81-yard performance in East Lansing.

FLYNN NAGEL WILL RUN THROUGH A TABLE TO HELP HIS TEAM. THAT’S CALLED GRIT.

Big Question

Who steps up behind Nagel and Wilson?

Nagel is the favorite to handle lead receiver duties, but the importance of Macan Wilson shouldn’t be overlooked. Wilson, a senior, caught 22 passes for 306 yards in 2016. At worst, he gives the Wildcats another experienced target in the passing game. At best, he could end up as the most productive receiver on the roster. Behind those two, though? A whole lot of unknowns.

Brown is an exciting wildcard. He’ll have every opportunity to take on a big role after being buried in the depth chart at Oregon. Still, we don’t know how well he will have learned the offense and developed chemistry with Thorson during his three months with the team. Jelani Roberts has ridiculous speed, but the diminutive junior didn’t catch a single pass last season and hasn’t been able to carve out a role thus far in his career. Bennett Skowronek and Charlie Fessler are bigger receivers on the outside who will compete to replace Scanlan’s production. Maybe a new contributor, such as Lloyd Yates, Riley Lees, or Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman will emerge.

At this point, all we can do is guess.

Projected Depth Chart

Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
X-receiver Macan Wilson Riley Lees Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman
Y-receiver Flynn Nagel Jelani Roberts Lloyd Yates
Z-receiver Jalen Brown Bennett Skowronek Charlie Fessler