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2018 Northwestern football position previews: Wide receivers

The Wildcats have a ton of depth. Now, someone needs to become “the guy.”

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For the second part of our 2018 Summer Guide, we move onto position previews. For each position, we’ll outline personnel, key players, and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

Following the holiday, we’re on to the wide receivers.

Overview:

Returning starters (career starts): Bennett Skowronek (13), Flynn Nagel (24)

Key losses: Macan Wilson (32 catches, 446 yards, one touchdown in 2017)

Other returners: Jalen Brown (Sr.), Solomon Vault (Sr.), Jelani Roberts (Sr.) Charlie Fessler (Jr.), Steven Reese (Jr.), Riley Lees (So.), Jace James (So.), Kyric McGowan (So.), Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (So.), Jackson Tirmonia (So.)

Redshirt freshmen: Berkeley Holman, Will Lansbury

Newcomers: Raymond Niro III, JJ Jefferson

At this time last year, Northwestern’s wide receiving depth was one of the biggest questions entering the 2017 season. The Wildcats would need to replace All-Big Ten performer Austin Carr as well as Andrew Scanlan. Speedy Solomon Vault would miss 2017 with a lower-body injury as well. Nagel and Macan Wilson were the only Wildcat returnees with extensive playing time at wideout.

A young receiving core held its own. Skowronek emerged as Clayton Thorson’s top target, while Nagel improved on his 2016 production with career highs in receptions and yards. Then-freshman Riley Lees provided a solid ancillary threat from the get-go, scoring in his first collegiate game while doubling as a productive returner specialist. In their first collegiate seasons, James, McGowan and Chiaokhiao-Bowman had their moments too, combining for ten catches.

Northwestern would be in a good position at wideout if only Skowronek, Nagel, and Lees were returning. Adding Vault and Brown (who played in only three games in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injuries) is huge for the group. We know Vault as an electrifying return man who was able to contribute at wideout as well. Brown, an Oregon graduate transfer and former top recruit, is a legitimate deep-ball threat who averaged 16.7 yards per catch in 2016 and can make defenders miss.

It’s not an embarrassment of riches, but the Wildcats enjoy plenty of competitive depth amongst a unit that is still pretty young and should continue to develop.

Key Player:

Riley Lees

We covered Bennett Skowronek’s breakout in 2017, so I’ll focus on another young wideout who enjoyed success in 2017. Lees appeared in all 13 games as a backup, recording 18 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns. He made his mark right away, scoring in each of his first two games as a Wildcat.

Even though he barely managed more than one catch per game, Lees demonstrated explosiveness and elusiveness that Northwestern’s passing attack desperately needs. His 13.1 yards per catch trailed only Skowronek and Wilson in 2017. The Wildcats ranked 127th in the country in IsoPPP last season, a number that needs to improve now that Justin Jackson can’t be relied on to move the chains down after down.

Lees was targeted 36 times and only managed 18 catches, which is something that he needs to improve on. If he can improve his success rate and his output (Lees had seven games with one catch or fewer), Lees can ease the pressure on Brown and Vault to produce right away.

Big Question:

Can any receiver become a go-to threat?

Northwestern’s passing attack was good-not-great in 2017. Mick McCall likes to pass in standard downs, and the Wildcats looked pretty good in those situations, ranking 55th in S&P in those situations. In passing downs, Northwestern was 113th.

The Wildcats were able to chunk off yardage on first down, but once it got to third-and-long, Northwestern was quite bad. Part of this has to do with shoddy line play, but another part of it is due to personnel.

In 2017, Northwestern didn’t have a go-to threat, someone who could get open and make a play regardless of the down. Skowronek emerged as a solid No. 1 option, and Nagel was excellent in his role too, but neither receiver is putting the fear of God into defensive coordinators, and more importantly, neither is tilting the field in his direction.

For Northwestern to become potent through the air, Thorson will need a wideout he can go to on any down to make a play, and someone who can draw attention from the defense so holes open up elsewhere. The Wildcats have a lot of experience and competence at receiver. Now, someone, be it Skowronek, Nagel, or maybe Jalen Brown, needs to become elite.

Depth Chart:

WR Depth

Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
X-receiver Bennett Skowronek Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman Charlie Fessler
Y-receiver Flynn Nagel Riley Lees Jelani Roberts
Z-receiver Jalen Brown Solomon Vault Jace James

Things are pretty fluid beyond the second-stringers, but Northwestern has a solid eight-to-ten man rotation of contributors.