To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2018. We’ve put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
Next up is junior wide receiver Bennett Skowronek:
Martin Oppegaard (Rank: NR):
Skowronek’s emergence as a legitimate No. 1 wideout was crucial in the absence of Austin Carr. As a sophomore, he paced Northwestern’s receiving corps with 619 yards and five touchdowns last season. He showed great improvement with his hands and he doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for his blocking. He’s also not among the ten most important players.
In Northwestern’s three best wins — Iowa, Michigan State and Kentucky — Skowronek caught a total of ten balls for less than 100 yards. He had two catches for 25 yards in the win over Maryland, one reception against Illinois (albeit a big one) and two against Minnesota. The bulk of Skowronek’s work last season came against Nevada, Bowling Green and Purdue; that’s not exactly the metronome of consistency. This isn’t a knock on the rising junior by any means. He made an indelible impact on the aforementioned games, drawing No. 1 cornerback assignments and paving the path for Justin Jackson to run wild. What I’m saying is that this team can win its biggest games without big production from the 6-foot-4 wideout. If Northwestern rides Skowronek’s coattails to a season-defining win on a magical Nov. 3 evening, give me a call. I’ll eat my words. For now, I’m sticking to it.
Caleb Friedman (Rank: 4): It is Skowronek’s inconsistency from last season that provides him with an opportunity to improve a lot this season, which is why I think he’s really important. I have a feeling Northwestern’s offensive line is going to be better than past seasons, which means Clayton Thorson will have more time to throw (assuming he’s under center). If Skowronek can become a bonafide No. 1 receiver, Northwestern’s offense elevates to another level. Having a top receiver at that size poses major problems for defenses on third downs and in the red zone, which are of course very important.
Austin Carr dominated games, but dominating in the slot is different than dominating on the outside. If Skowronek starts winning deep when faced with one-on-one coverage, then the entire defense has to shift over. That has ripple effects throughout the offense, especially for Jeremy Larkin & Co. when safeties can’t cheat down in the box because they have to account for the receiver on the back end. For players who don’t redshirt, like Skowronek, the jump from sophomore to junior season is typically a big one. A big leap for Skowronek would transform the offense and alleviate some of the predictability issues that have reared their ugly heads in the past.
When thinking about who’s play will determine the success of the offense relative to expectations, Skowronek has to be near the top of the list.