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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the wide receivers

Most of the Wildcats’ production out wide returns in 2018.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-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 wide receivers.

After a season with Austin Carr as the primary target of Clayton Thorson’s passes, the wide receivers had a massive hole to fill in 2017. Right out of the gates, it seemed like Bennett Skowronek had a chance to take over Carr’s role as a true No. 1 receiver. The sophomore caught 8 balls for 123 yards in the season opener, then added 86 yards and 2 touchdowns against Bowling Green. Once Big Ten play rolled around, though, the receiving corps proved to be more of a balanced effort. Macan Wilson had big games against Maryland and Nebraska, Flynn Nagel’s overtime touchdown highlighted a breakout day against Michigan State, and Skowronek racked up 117 more yards against Purdue. Meanwhile, Riley Lees and a host of other young wideouts were providing extra options for Thorson.

Player Grades

Bennett Skowronek: A-

Stats: 45 receptions, 644 yards (14.3 ypr), 5 touchdowns, two 100+ yard games

The numbers alone may not be outrageously outstanding, but the context combined with the solid statistical performance earned Skowronek the A-. That context came in the form of two aspects: his growth from last year and Thorson’s inconsistency.

Sure, part of the reasoning behind Skowronek’s vast improvements from last season stem from more time on the field as well as the loss of 2016 season’s primary target in Carr. But Skowronek’s totals his true freshman season were mediocre at best — he had as many receptions the whole season as he did in the first game of 2017, and finished with 70 yards and no touchdowns. His impact was extremely limited as a freshman, which is not unusual nor a point of criticism. Rather, it’s a testament to the confidence he gained and impact he produced as a result.

Secondly, a receiver’s ability to make a play is largely dependent on the throw from the quarterback, and by no means was Thorson a detriment to Skowronek. However, he wasn’t perfect — no quarterbacks are — and certainly struggled at points, mainly earlier in the season which could contribute to his duds against Duke and Maryland (9 and 14 yards, respectively). It also seemed like Skowronek just wasn’t a big part of the gameplan at times, whether that was due to individual matchups or coverage schemes or who knows what. But Skowronek heated up with touchdown grabs in three of four games late in the season, most impressively this replay-worthy catch in his big game against Purdue.

All throughout the year, Skowronek showed flashes of greatness. His biggest advantage is his 6-foot-4 frame, which allows him to go up and make plays in the air, whether it was Thorson throwing the ball:

Or someone else:

Flynn Nagel: B-

Stats: 48 receptions, 489 yards (10.2 ypr), 2 touchdowns

Nagel had some impressive moments this season, and was the second-leading receiver for the Wildcats. However, as a junior, many expected him to step up and fill Carr’s aforementioned spot, or at least have a big year. Instead, he added just 42 yards to his sophomore season total and tallied the same amount of touchdowns: 2.

Although these numbers are not insignificant, and Nagel made contributions to the offense this season, it was overall a fairly disappointing performance considering the expectations revolving around him entering the 2017 season. Nagel tallied under 30 receiving yards in six games this season and surpassed the 50-yard mark just three times.

That said, Nagel was an important factor in the Michigan State win, with a season-high 87 yards on 8 receptions and critical touchdown. And Thorson spent a large portion of the season scattering his passes amongst various targets, potentially limiting Nagel’s receptions. But for someone who we (maybe unfairly) forecasted big things from, Nagel’s junior year left something to be desired.

Macan Wilson: B-

Stats: 32 receptions, 446 yards (13.9 ypr), one touchdown

In his senior season, Wilson also had the opportunity to step up and become a leading receiver for the Wildcats. Although it was just his second season in the wide receiver rotation, he had substantial experience to build off of from the 2016 season. As a junior, he was named Northwestern’s Offensive Big Playmaker on two occasions and although he gained 140 yards to his junior year total, he didn’t reach primary-target status in 2017. Wilson’s only touchdown came in the season-opening home win against Nevada, Northwestern’s first touchdown of the year.

Aside from a 107 yard performance on 5 receptions in the Wildcats’ contest against Nebraska and 74 yards on 5 receptions against Maryland, the senior was pretty quiet. On six different occasions, Wilson finished with eight yards or less. That’s not to diminish his impact, but rather to acknowledge his inconsistency and inability to fill the crucial break-out star role.

Riley Lees: B+

Stats: 18 receptions, 235 yards (13.1 ypr), 2 touchdowns

Sure, Lees’s numbers were on the quieter side, but it is important to remember this was just his redshirt freshman season and he was playing behind three returning receivers.

Lees did a beautiful job of finding the hole in the defense and stretching the last few yards to the end zone in his first college game. His touchdown tied the game in Northwestern’s eventual win and was a fabulous start to his career. Although Lees frequently wasn’t involved much, he had some great moments this season and showed strong potential for next season.

Lees was also Northwestern’s primary punt returner. He fair caught the ball a lot.

Looking ahead to 2018:

On paper, Skowronek should continue to establish his spot as the star receiver next season, and Nagel will look to gain consistency and confidence in the offseason that will allow him to have a strong senior season. Lees looks to have a bright future, too. That said, there will be competition, as only Wilson departs and Dennis Springer gets back a pair of injured players in Solomon Vault and former Oregon grad transfer Jalen Brown. There are also a strong group of younger players who saw limited but important minutes this season, including Charlie Fessler, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Jace James, and Kyric McGowan.

Although true freshmen have seen the field at WR in each of the last couple season, 2018 signee Jacob Jefferson will have a hard time doing so with all the bodies in front of him. There will be a slight exodus after next season, though, with 2018 being the last go around for Nagel, Brown, Vault, and Jelani Roberts. It’ll be interesting to see who can step up in the potential absence of Thorson and emerge as primary targets for whoever the quarterback ends up being.