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Five Biggest Questions for Northwestern in 2020, No. 5: Which pass catchers will step up?

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The Wildcats, despite inconsistent production at the position, have plenty of talent to use through the air.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few months, we’ve covered nearly every aspect of the upcoming Northwestern football season. This week, we continue our offseason coverage by looking at the five biggest questions surrounding Northwestern football in 2020.

We start the series by examining which pass catchers have the tools to step up for the Wildcats this fall.

It should be safe to say Northwestern’s passing game can’t get worse from 2019. After all, NU finished with the fourth-worst passing offense in the FBS.

Now, offensive coordinator Mick McCall is gone, and the quarterback room has a proven commodity in Peyton Ramsey. Although last year’s receiving numbers may not indicate it, Northwestern has a plethora of competent pass catchers.

The wide receiving core looks largely the same as last season, and losing the big-bodied Bennett Skowronek (1417 career receiving yards and eight touchdowns) is a blow. However, Fitz addressed several needs this offseason by bringing in a new offensive coordinator, a quarterback ranked as the fourth highest-graded returning player in the Big Ten according to Pro Football Focus, and a tight end who single-handedly racked up the same amount of receiving touchdowns as all of Northwestern last year. Seeing how poor play calling and scheme design, dismal quarterback performance and a lack of reliable receiving options were the major offensive issues last year, these three additions point to an improved passing offense in 2020.

Riley Lees

Despite last year’s inconsistency at quarterback, one wide receiver quietly improved: Riley Lees. In 2019, the Illinois native caught 51 balls for 430 yards and two touchdowns, building on his 214 yards on 22 catches from the year before. Lees showed off a propensity to both create separation and to make some difficult catches throughout his 2019 campaign.

Given the lack of proven pass catchers on the team, Lees should be the number one passing option come this fall, no matter who is throwing him the ball. As we wrote about in our 2020 wide receivers preview, Lees could be well-positioned to make a leap similar to that of Flynn Nagel as he enters his final season in Evanston. The two had remarkably similar junior seasons (Nagel caught 48 balls for 489 yards and two scores), and they also share similar physical attributes (Lees is 6-foot, 200 pounds while Nagel was 5-foot-11, 195 pounds).

The senior has thus far proved to be an effective possession receiver, a safety blanket of sorts. Nagel showed a bit more of a deep threat when healthy, but it isn’t crazy to say Lees could put up numbers similar to that of Nagel’s senior year (68 catches for 780 receiving yards). This isn’t to say Lees hasn’t already stepped up, but he can take his production a step up.

John Raine

The superback position simply couldn’t be found last year: Charlie Mangieri accumulated only five receptions for 21 yards. That looks to change this year with the addition of John Raine, the incoming graduate transfer tight end from Florida Atlantic.

Raine will likely serve as the secondary passing option this season after a strong 2019 campaign that saw him catch 38 passes for 343 yards and six touchdowns, all while playing alongside the nation’s best tight end in Harrison Bryant. At FAU, he established himself as a consistent and reliable player, both as a blocker and as a pass catcher, which is already reason enough to vault him towards the top of the depth chart. As you can see in these clips, he has some impressive skills and is not afraid to take hits after the catch.

It is important to note that Mike Bajakian has enjoyed utilizing his tight ends as primary pass catchers in the past as well. Last year at Boston College, he often employed a 12 personnel (one RB, two TE). The tight ends combined for 62 receptions, 943 yards and eight touchdowns. Raine’s red zone effectiveness should also help a Northwestern offense that ranked 101st in red zone offense in 2019 according to NCAA.com. With that in mind and with minimal competition for snaps, expect there to be a heavy dose of Purple Raine within the Northwestern passing game next season. Maybe we see the next Cam Green?

Dark Horses

Still, Lees and Raine aren’t the only two viable receiving options. Several other guys could help lessen the load. Who will separate themselves from the pack? We don’t know, but these are the most likely candidates:

  • Ramaud-Chiaokhiao Bowman and Kyric McGowan return for their senior seasons having made some big plays during their time at NU, and should see the field a lot during their final year in Evanston. McGowan with his speed could be an x-factor at both running back and receiver if the coaches use him creatively.
  • Juniors Jace James and JJ Jefferson have shown the ability to make plays. Jefferson has good speed and caught the team’s longest pass of 2019 before getting hurt, and James made two impressive touchdown grabs—one against Purdue and the other at Minnesota—toward the end of the year.
  • Genson Hooper Price and Bryce Kirtz are the redshirt freshmen who are the highest-rated wideout recruits in NU ranking history. They didn’t make a splash in their first season, but that isn’t unusual for true freshmen. Hooper-Price has impressive size at 6-foot-5, while the 6-foot Kirtz’s strengths lie more in his speed and route-running.