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2020 Northwestern football position previews: Wide Receivers

Uncertainty clouds a group with an abundance of returning talent.

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

It’s officially Northwestern’s summer. Spring Quarter ended last week, and it’s time to look ahead to the fall, when, despite many uncertainties and potential alterations, the college football powers that be are planning for the 2020 season. We start our summer coverage by previewing every position group on the team. Today we will be discussing the receivers!


Returning starters: Riley Lees (Sr.), Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (Sr.), Kyric McGowan (Sr.)

Key Losses: Bennett Skowronek (transferred to Notre Dame)

Returners: Jace James (Jr.), Malik Washington (So.), JJ Jefferson (Jr.), Berkeley Holman (Jr.), Raymond Niro (So.), Braeden Heald (R-So.), Will Lansbury (Jr.)

Redshirt First-Years: Bryce Kirtz, Genson Hooper-Price, Preston Bacon, Jack Kennedy, Wayne Dennis, Jr.

Last season, senior captain Bennett Skowronek suffered a season-ending foot injury just three games into the season. The Fort Wayne native, known for utilizing his towering stature to go up and make plays (see, Iowa 2018), was Northwestern’s primary receiver in his abbreviated 2019 campaign.

The wide receiving corps won’t change very much from last season. Skowronek transferred to Notre Dame, but he is all Northwestern lost. Last season, Riley Lees stepped up in Skowronek’s absence, pacing the unit with 51 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns. Given the instability around the quarterback and offense as whole in 2019, it was unrealistic for any Northwestern receiver to break out last season.

Regardless, NU will need greater production out of its number one receiver. With a plethora of talent in returnees such as RCB, McGowan, Washington, and a host of other names, NU simply needs a few players to step up early in the season and establish themselves as reliable targets. McGowan, Washington and JJ Jefferson possess great speed. Bryce Kirtz and especially Genson Hooper-Price, despite not seeing the field in 2019, are thought to have impressive athleticism.

With a new quarterback in Peyton Ramsey and a new scheme coming from offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, there should undoubtedly be improvement from this group.

Key Player

Malik Washington

The easy answer would have been Riley Lees. But the only freshman receiver to burn his redshirt last season can create an integral role for himself on this team. He caught only six balls for 25 yards as a true freshman, but the fact Washington appeared in eleven games as a freshman further solidifies his respect in the depth chart.

If any one player breaks out at receiver in 2020, like NU needs to happen, I’d bet on Washington. Standing at a listed 5-foot-9, the Georgia native is undersized for a Big Ten receiver, but his strength and speed compensate for it.

Washington committed to NU over Tennessee, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Michigan State. He clearly has the talent to succeed. Given Fitz’s desire to play him as much as he did last season, it appears that even the head coach believes a breakout is coming for the true sophomore.

Big Questions

Can Riley Lees replicate Flynn Nagel’s production as a senior?

As a senior in 2018, Flynn Nagel established himself as arguably Clayton Thorson’s top option. After hauling in 48 balls for 489 yards with two touchdowns in his junior season, Nagel stepped up to made 68 catches for 780 yards and two scores in his final ride.

Given Lees’ strengths, statistics and frame, the comparison between the two can be made with relative ease. Northwestern would love to see Lees to make a jump similar to that of Nagel in his senior season. Without a clear cut number one receiver, this passing game could become extremely stagnant. We already saw what that looked like last season.

Will this position group create more explosive plays in 2020?

It’s a simple question, and an important outcome. It would be pretty hard for this unit to be less explosive than it was in 2019. But for the offense to return to respectable, it needs to create more big plays.

NU lacked both the scheme, confidence and execution opposing teams feared could take the top off of the defense. With another offseason of development and new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, look for this to change.

It may be unrealistic to expect a position group that remains largely intact from last season to add a ton of speed in just nine months, but it is imperative this group finds ways to deliver explosive plays in some fashion. The speed might already be there, and it was just never used correctly. Riley Lees said explosiveness has been an area of focus for wideouts all off-season. Look for more big plays in the fall.

Depth Chart

This chart is both a premature and subjective prediction, but here’s an early look at how the position could fill out. We should hopefully have more of an idea if/when preseason camp progresses and position battles ensue.

Northwestern’s Wide Receivers 2020

Riley Lees RCB Kyric McGowan
Malik Washington Jace James JJ Jefferson