With our postseason coverage starting a bit early this year, it’s time to give out some individual grades and a small look at what’s to come in the 2020 season. We’re going to evaluate each position group as we deconstruct what went wrong for the ‘Cats over the course of 2019. Next up is the wide receivers, and no, we unfortunately cannot just talk about Riley Lees.
Overall Grade: C+
Considering how much wide receivers depend on the skill level of the guy throwing to them, it’s no surprise that the Northwestern WRs struggled in a year where the quarterback position group received a D for its performance grade.
That’s partially why this group still received a passing grade (C’s get degrees, as they say). There’s not a lot they can do when the player designated to throw them the ball continually sails it over their heads or doesn’t even look their way when they are open.
That said, the pass-catchers can’t escape without some blame. There were dropped passes. There were poorly run routes. Worst of all, the ‘Cats finished 127th out of 130 teams in passing yards per game, and the three teams they finished ahead of were the only three true triple option teams remaining in the FBS.
Kentucky even finished one spot ahead of Northwestern, even though they played a wide receiver at quarterback for the last two months of the season. Oof. Well. on that note, let’s look at the players who were split out wide this season for the purple and white.
Riley Lees: A-
Stats: 51 receptions, 430 yards, 2 touchdowns
In a normal year, Lees would probably drop down a letter grade. Sure, he was solid all season, catching at least five passes in seven different games and contributing at least a little in each contest save for his one-catch, negative two yard performance against Iowa.
But the junior was far from perfect. He only averaged 8.1 yards per reception, and failed to break 100 yards in any single game. He recorded half as many touchdowns as he did in 2018, and those didn’t come till the final third of the season. Put it this way: If Lees was the team’s third best receiver, like he was last year, then you would have one heck of a receiving corps.
Unfortunately, this is the 2019 Northwestern Wildcats, and Lees was far and away the team’s best pass-catcher. He more than doubled every other receiver in total yardage, and at least tripled them in total receptions. In a season where most receivers saw their stats regress, Lees actually saw vast improvement.
So no, Lees wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t some dynamic weapon that other teams had to account for, but to be fair, no one on this offense was. Lees was a fantastic possession receiver that came through in a very rough season of Northwestern football, even making all seven of his team’s receptions in the win over UMASS. And, most importantly...he gave us the touchdown catch that helped secure the HAT.
Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman: C
Stats: 17 receptions, 188 yards, 0 touchdowns
When watching team sports, it’s not a good sign when you completely forget that a certain player is out there despite general knowledge of who they are. Think Jeff Green or Andrew Wiggins at times in the NBA. I bring this up because it’s how I too often felt about Chiaokhiao-Bowman this season.
Yes, the talent is there, and he was far from the offense’s biggest problem, but I just don’t remember him making too many impactful or meaningful plays. While he technically had the second best receiving stats on the team by volume, none of those seemed to come when the ‘Cats actually needed them.
He racked up 10 catches for 112 yards combined in the games against Michigan State, Iowa and Indiana, all of which were decided early, making Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s yards not much more than filler stats. A lot of that of course, can be pinned on the struggles under center, but the 6’2” redshirt junior needs to work on his consistency with regards to both getting open and making plays headed into next season.
Kyric McGowan: C-
Stats: 13 receptions, 102 yards, 0 touchdowns
There’s a good chance that McGowan will be listed as a running back next year, due to his dynamic dash in the Purdue game before an unfortunate season-ending injury. Another reason why he might switch positions is that he had a relatively poor year at his originally designated one.
McGowan was a decent deep threat his sophomore season, averaging 17.7 yards per reception, only to see that plummet to an 7.8 yard average this year. His reception totals were still low, like they were in 2018, and the only game where he mustered over two catches was when he switched to running back against the Boilermakers.
McGowan’s speed and quick twitch ability certainly seem more valuable in the backfield than on the far side. He was not a productive receiver this year, with a few drops adding to struggles with finding space in the secondary, so here’s to hoping that Mike Bajakian and the offensive coaching staff sticks with the change Mick McCall made in November.
JJ Jefferson: B
Stats: 12 receptions, 155 yards, 2 touchdowns
Maybe I’m overreacting here. Jefferson’s stats certainly don’t jump off the page as those of a highly productive player, even one whose season was cut short due to injury. But there were two specific moments of his this year that I couldn’t get out of my head, and in a season that most ‘Cats fans probably wish they could forget, that counts for something.
Most of you probably know the first one I’m talking about: Jefferson’s impressive 50-yard touchdown in the win over UNLV.
(Some not-so-fun facts about this play: It was the longest completion of the season for Northwestern and it was the only touchdown Hunter Johnson has ever thrown in college. Anyone who would now like to slam their head against a wall, you are excused to do so.)
The second moment for me was when Triple J’s season ended in an injury after the first quarter of the abysmal Iowa loss. To that point in the game, Jefferson had accounted for the team’s only two receptions (in addition to being the only pass-catcher with any touchdowns at that point in the season), and just being in the stands that day, seeing him on the ground left the student section in despair.
Not only was it an injury, but an injury to the only receiver that seemed capable of creating any separation against the talented Iowa secondary. It was a collective feeling of, “You have got to be kidding me.” Jefferson was the team’s best deep threat, showed real flashes of talent, solid route-running, and good hands, and should be poised for a good season next year.
Bennett Skowronek: Incomplete
Stats: 12 receptions, 141 yards, 0 touchdowns
After a great junior season and a heroic division-winning catch against Iowa, 2019 should have been Skowronek’s year. Unfortunately, the potential season of stardom turned into a nightmare, and his future is now uncertain.
The senior led the team in receiving over the first three games of 2019, but was injured against Michigan State, and would not return to the field again for the ‘Cats this season.
The initial rumors were that Skowronek would be leaving NU to enter the NFL draft. However, it’s since been reported that Skowronek is instead deciding between returning to Northwestern or transferring to another school for his final season. Only time will tell if ‘Cats fans get to see #88 as a Wildcat again in a potentially career-defining role as a member of Mike Bajakian’s offense, or if his Northwestern career sadly ended in a blowout loss to the Spartans.
Jace James: B+
Stats: 10 receptions, 92 yards, 2 touchdowns
For a guy who didn’t see the field much, James left a pretty positive impact. He had a semi-breakout in the near-win against Purdue, with three catches, 41 yards and an impressive touchdown snag. James still has two years of eligibility left, and Northwestern fans should expect him to become more involved in the offense in the following seasons.
Berkeley Holman: C+
Stats: 9 receptions, 124 yards, 0 touchdowns
Holman was buried fairly deep on the depth chart, and in his few reps he didn’t really flash. Not a disaster, but an average season for a guy who not much was expected from.
Malik Washington: C+
Stats: 6 receptions, 25 yards, 0 touchdowns
See above, but with 20% fewer reps. Washington certainly provided some promise as a true freshman, though.