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2019 Northwestern football position previews: Wide Receivers

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The pass-catching unit loses Flynn Nagel but adds some serious talent.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Overview:

Returning starters: Bennett Skowronek (Sr.), Riley Lees (Jr.), Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (Jr.)

Key Losses: Flynn Nagel, Charlie Fessler

Returners: Kyric McGowan (Jr.), JJ Jefferson (So.), Berkeley Holman (So.), Braeden Heald (R-Fy.), Raymond Niro III (R-Fy.), Jace James (R-Jr.)

Newcomers: Bryce Kirtz, Genson Hooper-Price

The loss of Flynn Nagel hurts as he provided some truly sensational, put-the-offense-on-his-back performances, but Northwestern has one of its deepest receiver groups in a long time. The talent is arriving, too. Kirtz and Hooper-Price are two of NU’s highest-rated wide receiver recruits in the program’s history, and Hooper-Price especially can jump out of the gym. Northwestern is not exactly used to reeling in the uber athletic skill players, so this is special for the program. McGowan and Jefferson also have great speed that they showcased at times last year.

We got a taste toward the end of last season of what the receiving corps may look like without Nagel, who battled through injuries. In the Holiday Bowl, Nagel and Skowronek both suffered injuries. McGowan, Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Holman, along with a dynamic performance from Lees, contributed to the magical third quarter comeback in San Diego. Mick McCall dialed up the play calling in Clayton Thorson’s last game, but with such a new quarterback he may be reluctant to do the same.

Key Player:

Kyric McGowan

The loss of superback Cameron Green, Northwestern’s third-leading receiver from last year, opens up even more opportunity for lesser-known or appreciated receivers to make an impact.

Despite a slight drop in production last season (attributable to more than just himself), Skowronek should be the uncontested number one wideout after making some huge catches. The key will be who establishes themselves as the final two starters. I’m going to go with McGowan as the x-factor of this group.

McGowan made one of the plays to turn around NU’s season when he used his foot speed to take advantage of a blown coverage against Michigan State and make a 77-yard touchdown catch. The sophomore was second on the team with 17.7 yards per catch and progressed from simply a big-play threat to also a possession receiver as the season went along.

With another offseason under his belt, big game experience and increased opportunity, McGowan has the tools to become a top-three pass catcher.

Big Questions:

Can Skowronek follow Nagel and become a true number one?

Though last season was not his statistical best, Skowronek made some of Northwestern’s timeliest plays. He came up with a big catch-and-run versus Nebraska, a couple big grabs against Wisconsin, a one-handed fourth-down snag in the Notre Dame game and of course the Big Ten West-clinching touchdown at Iowa. However, Thorson was not always targeting the Indiana native as he favored Nagel and Green as safety blankets.

With both Nagel and Green gone, Skowronek becomes that number one. It greatly helps the senior that he has several viable teammates behind him, but he should be the clear cut top wide out for which defenses game plan. If he can excel in that number one receiver spot, it could take Northwestern’s offense to the next level. Infrequently has NU had a group of receivers as deep as it does this season, and one of the many factors that will contribute to Johnson’s success is viable pass catchers, even if they aren’t Clemson-level threats.

How quickly can these highly-touted freshman wideouts become difference-makers?

The receivers room is deep. There is a good mix of experience and youth, and the youngsters have the highest ceilings, at least according to their recruiting ratings. One thing that motivates veteran players is new players challenging them for playing time. In an ideal world, Fitz will have that problem where Kirtz and Price are earning snaps and making their fellow split ends better.

The 2019 recruits bring athleticism and talent out of high school that Northwestern isn’t too accustomed to seeing. If they can make some noise and be on the field early in the season, it could completely change the dynamic of both the receivers unit and the offense in general with speed. If the offensive line struggles and Johnson doesn’t have lots of time to throw, quick receivers who get open on short and intermediate routes (which Mick McCall loves to run) will be his best friend.

Depth Chart:

WR Depth Chart

WR1 WR2 WR3
WR1 WR2 WR3
Bennett Skowronek J.J. Jefferson Kyric McGowan
Riley Lees Berkeley Holman Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman