As summer gets underway and we get closer (hopefully!) to college football’s return, Inside NU carries on an annual tradition of counting down the players our staff has judged as most important to the team’s success in the coming season.
The definition of importance in this setting is, of course, up for interpretation, but that just makes this exercise all the more intriguing and, potentially, revealing. If you want to check out last year’s list, follow this link, and if you need a refresher on our overall rankings this time around, click this one.
For each placement on the list, we’ve enlisted two of our writers to debate the merits of the player and his ranking. Sliding into the eighth slot is a talented offensive threat who never quite seemed to achieve his full potential under the old regime.
Noah Coffman (4)
I had Kyric McGowan higher on these rankings than any other offensive player besides the signal-caller (and higher than any of my colleagues). That decision stemmed from two main factors: his breakout game against Purdue last season — a nearly nonexistent bright spot in a season full of offensive struggles, though it was tempered by the season-ending injury he sustained in the second half — and the consistent emphasis by new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian this offseason on big plays.
Despite some big moments in his sophomore season, namely a 77-yard touchdown catch against Michigan State, McGowan never saw more than four touches in a game in his first 32 contests as a Wildcat, only earning that many in impressive performances during the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State and the comeback Holiday Bowl win over Utah. Under Mick McCall’s guidance and play-calling, the Georgia native was sent on deep routes consistently, but without much variation in his patterns and not a lot of misdirection around him, he virtually never got open.
Arguably McCall’s most impressive move last season was putting McGowan in the backfield, finally giving his playmaker a chance to do just that — make plays. And make plays he did, ripping off a 79-yard touchdown run against Purdue along with numerous first-down pickups to help revitalize a plodding run game. Now, with a more modern, explosive play-oriented offense coming to town via Bajakian, McGowan has a chance to build on that foundation.
The rising senior has had occasional problems with drops and getting separation on the outside in the past. But an offense that actually focuses on big plays should give him the opportunity to create from the outside, the slot and the backfield, thanks to his already-displayed Swiss Army knife-like capabilities as a playmaker.
Despite his shortcomings, McGowan is clearly the most explosive member of a rebuilding Wildcat offense as it moves into 2020. If Bajakian and co. take advantage of that by actually using the speedy senior all over the field in a variety of concepts and situations instead of sending him on 20 clear-out routes per game while everybody else crosses underneath him, it could be the start of something special.
Colin Kruse (7)
My placing McGowan at the seventh place of my list seems low relative to my fearless former editor-in-chief, but this ranking is mainly a function of my finding everyone to be pretty darn important coming into the season. McGowan had a below-average season as a receiver yet broke out in the backfield against Purdue before seeing his season cut short due to injury.
McGowan’s versatility could be a nice fit into Mike Bajakian’s new offensive scheme, and that’s primarily why he made my list. It’s also hard to ignore his whopping his nearly 18 yards per carry, primarily in that heartbreaker against the Boilermakers. At the same time, with a healthy backfield of Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson —two players I ranked directly ahead of him — McGowan’s services will most likely be served as a deep or slot option with occasionally reps in the backfield.
While his average yards per catch dropped by nearly ten yards from his sophomore to junior season, perhaps that statistic is more indicative of the miserable quarterbacking this past season as well as Mick McCall’s much maligned, chunk play-limiting playbook. If there is one statistic that seems concerning, McGowan’s reception numbers have been low across the past two seasons. I agree with Noah on his lack of separation in the defensive backfield on long routes: He’s 5-foot-10, and not to undercut his athleticism and ability, but he simply could not get open at times.
With Bajakian arriving in Evanston and the opportunity to inject some creativity and big-play potential into the Wildcats’ offense, McGowan could serve as a hybrid guy getting touches all over the field. A lot of his success in this upcoming season will see him rely on his speed and explosiveness: That score against Purdue that broke NU’s month-long touchdown drought demonstrates his vision and elusiveness out of the backfield. He’s still a useful deep option if needed, but McGowan’s skillset should be utilized to keep Big Ten defenses on their toes as he shifts from one role to the other.