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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the superbacks

Another solid year of production from Northwestern’s pseudo-tight ends.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. Next up are the superbacks.

Year in and year out, Northwestern seems to enjoy good production from its superbacks. 2017 was no different. While Northwestern’s superbacks are never the first option in Mick McCall’s scheme, Garrett Dickerson ended up fourth on the Wildcats with 38 catches and backup Cam Green added 20 of his own. Northwestern’s superbacks especially stood out in the red zone as pass-catchers and run-blockers.

Player grades:

Garrett Dickerson: A-

Stats: 37 receptions, 401 yards (10.8 yards per catch), four touchdowns

For the third year in a row, Dickerson registered more catches and yards than he did the season before. He proved to be a valuable target for Clayton Thorson in the red zone and made some impressive catches over the middle, including this touchdown against Minnesota.

The senior’s best performance of the year came against Bowling Green, when he logged career-highs in receptions (9) and yards (150). His standout game earned him not just recognition from Pro Football Focus as a national team of the week member, but a perfect 99.9 grade.

Dickerson appeared to battle injuries throughout the season, ceding snaps to Green against Maryland and Kentucky. Nonetheless, the 240-pounder was an important pass-catcher for Northwestern, and more importantly, leveraged his skills as a blocker to protect Thorson and pave the way for Justin Jackson. Game-to-game, Dickerson’s production may have been modest, but his versatility as a blocker and a pass catcher was extremely important to the offense.

Cam Green: B

Stats: 20 receptions, 170 yards (8.5 yards per reception), 2 touchdowns.

With an experienced senior ahead of him on the depth chart, Green started off the season slowly, logging five total catches in Northwestern’s first five games. Against Maryland, the redshirt sophomore got his chance to play with Dickerson limited. Green logged 6 catches for 49 yards against the Terrapins, both career highs for the Buffalo Grove, Ill. native. Two weeks later, against Michigan State, the converted receiver had another big game, logging 76 yards on 6 catches. Green came up clutch with a touchdown in the first overtime and a two-point conversion in the third overtime to help upset the Spartans 39-31. Green didn’t produce much over the final stretch of the season, but he ended up with 20 receptions, good for sixth-most on the team.

Trey Pugh and James Prather: INC

Pugh and Prather got on the field almost exclusively in short-yardage packages. Prather managed the duo’s only catch of the year, a nine-yard reception against Wisconsin. Pugh is only a freshman, so Pat Fitzgerald must like the former three-star’s potential a lot to burn his redshirt and play him over older superbacks like Eric Eshoo and Cody Link.

Looking ahead to 2018

Northwestern has done a great job grooming its superbacks and getting solid production from that position — before Dickerson it was Dan Vitale and before Vitale it was Drake Dunsmore. The Wildcats will miss Dickerson, especially as a blocker, but Green’s emergence should provide some solace for Northwestern fans. It’s not hard to see Green’s numbers improve in 2018; Dickerson himself bumped his receptions up to 34 from 12 after Vitale graduated. Green will have to prove himself as a blocker, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fitz uses Prather’s massive 6-foot-4, 265-pound frame in power run scenarios more frequently.