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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the wide receivers

Much of the talent is returning next season

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa
Bennett Skowronek’s catch that won the west
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks after since Northwestern’s resounding comeback victory over Utah in the Holiday Bowl, it’s time to do a post-mortem on the season. We’ll give out some individual grades and give out a small preview for what’s to come in the 2019 season. Next up are the wide receivers.

Overall grade: B

This past season Northwestern returned its key pass catchers in Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel. Nagel shined in his senior season, with his most notable performance being his 12 catch, 220 yard, 2 touchdown performance against Nebraska. You can’t mention the wide receivers without mentioning Bennett Skowronek’s unbelievable diving catch against Iowa to clinch the Big Ten West.

Still, Northwestern’s passing offense struggled at times this year, in part because receivers had trouble getting separation downfield and because Nagel dealt with nagging injuries and inconsistency down the stretch. NU’s receivers are generally pretty fundamentally sound, but the passing offense was one of the least explosive units in the country, and that can be partially explained by the Wildcats struggling to win one-on-ones on the outside or make defenders miss after the catch.

Player Grades

Flynn Nagel: A-

Stats: 68 receptions, 780 yards (11.5 ypr), two touchdowns, three 100+ yard games

Nagel’s season stat-wise can be sort of misleading. Nagel had three outstanding performances this year, against Duke, at Michigan State and who could forget his performance against Nebraska. (if you forgot, check out the play at 1:01, it’s worth it.)

Those performances alone are enough to get him in the conversation for being in the A range. However, he seemed to disappear in other games, having three receptions or less in five out of the 14 games. In fact, 59.4% of Nagel’s reception yards and both of his touchdowns came during those three performances.

It would be unfair of me to not mention the fact that Nagel was injured at times during the season, most notably during the Holiday Bowl, Big Ten Championship, and missed the Illinois game. He was limited in his snaps against Minnesota as well.

Bennett Skowronek: B+

Stats: 45 receptions, 562 yards (12.5 yards per reception), three touchdowns

Skowronek had the single best play of the season for Northwestern this year (sorry, Joe, but it was better than Moten IV’s run in the Big Ten championship game) because the play won Northwestern the Big Ten West. Skowronek maintained similar numbers to what he had as a sophomore (45 receptions, 644 yards, five touchdowns). He may not have had a breakout level on par with Nagel but he was fairly consistent throughout the season and functioned as one of NU’s only deep threats.

I would remiss to disregard the fact that Skowronek had four games with one catch. He was also injured in the Holiday Bowl and played fewer snaps than normal against Illinois. The reason that Skowronek fell from an A- last season to a B+ this season has less to do with a difference in overall production. It has more to do with the fact that he was consistently solid, but did not take the big leap some of us expected in 2018. The biggest issue with grading receivers is that their performances are only so much in their hands, they don’t get recognition for most of the plays when they’re on the field.

Riley Lees: B-

Stats: 22 receptions, 214 yards (9.7 yards per catch), three touchdowns

Lees saw less time on the field than the two above, playing as a second-string receiver behind Bennett Skowronek, he still maintained decent numbers. His primary role was still to return punts, with some limited success.

Northwestern also made use of Lees with jet sweep type plays, making use of his speed. Lees, who was a quarterback (albeit a mobile one) in high school, was given the chance this season to play as a Wildcat quarterback. This setup, as used in the Holiday Bowl, presented defenses with a challenge, as he is a threat to throw the ball too. In this case, it was a designed run which can be seen at 2:16 in the clip below:

Lees will likely slot into Flynn Nagel’s role next season as a slot receiver who can pick up some yards after the catch.

Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman: B

Stats: 20 receptions, 237 yards (11.9 yards per reception)

Chiaokhiao-Bowman saw significantly more time in the earlier part of the season than he did later in the year, after he lost his starting position to JJ Jefferson. However, the sophomore turned in a litany of highlight plays for NU, including a 52-yard catch in the Holiday Bowl.

Much of why RCB is deserving of a B is that he has a lot of potential, and when given the chance to exploit it, I think that he could break out. He has shown this potential on many occasions, but will be confronted with just as much if not more competition in the 2019-20 season. In the last 3 games of the year, he had an average of 23.8 yards per catch, indicating some explosive ability.

Kyric McGowan: B

Stats: 16 receptions, 283 yards (17.7 yards per catch), two touchdowns

The sophomore wideout from Dalton, Georgia proved to be another one of Northwestern’s exciting talents this season. While not targeted particularly often (he had one reception in 8 games he played in and had zero catches against Purdue). McGowan really came into his own towards the end of the season, getting as many receptions in the Big Ten Championship and Holiday Bowl combined as he did in the entire rest of the season.

McGowan’s 77-yard touchdown catch against Michigan State was the Wildcats longest catch of the season. His potential and growth that he should exhibit over the next two years should excite Northwestern fans. He was also used for jet sweeps on three occasions, with those going for an average of 11.3 yards.

JJ Jefferson: INC

Stats: 10 receptions, 181 yards (18.1 yards per catch)

The freshman wideout took a few weeks to make his first appearance, opening his season with a 36-yard catch against Michigan. While he played less than most other receivers included, his impact was surely felt, and will be in the future. Jefferson’s 68-yard reception against Minnesota was one of the longest plays of the season. Plus, who could forget his incredible catch against Michigan State?

Looking ahead to 2019:

Northwestern returns nearly every wide receiver, the exceptions being Flynn Nagel, Jelani Roberts, and Charlie Fessler, with the latter two not receiving significant playing time. Nagel is a big loss, and some players, most notably Bennett Skowronek, will need to step up as a result. The additions of the Bryce Kirtz, Genson Hooper-Price, and Wayne Dennis Jr. should provide some new options in what was already a young wide receiver corps. Kirtz should be the most likely to have an immediate impact of the three but he will have to beat an older player to start. Still, he should receive some time any way.

Kirtz and Hooper-Price are among the most highly-rated receivers in recent recruiting history, and their careers will be a sort of litmus test. Can Northwestern successfully develop receivers who can become legitimate threats vertically and in the open field? Northwestern’s success through the air is largely due to scheme and execution. If NU can start to out-talent teams on the outside, things will be easier offensively, for Hunter Johnson and whoever comes after him.