Next up in the position review series are the wide receivers, one of the better-performing groups on the team over the course of the year.
Overall Grade: B+
After Northwestern’s four leading pass-catchers in 2020 — Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Kyric McGowan, John Raine and Riley Lees — left the program during the offseason, there were significant concerns over the Wildcats’ ability to replace that production. Despite less-than-ideal quarterback play throughout the season, the supposedly unproven wide receiver room performed well in 2021.
Stephon Robinson Jr. and Malik Washington headlined this group, combining for 43 percent of the team’s receptions and 56 percent of the team’s receiving yardage. In 2020, Robinson wasn’t even on the roster and Washington was much farther down on the depth chart, but their additions to the first-team offense worked out very well for the ‘Cats.
Injuries also impacted this group throughout the season, with Bryce Kirtz and Berkeley Holman both playing less than half of the season and Robinson missing a game as well. Those injuries gave opportunities to freshman Jacob Gill and JJ Jefferson — who has had health issues of his own in the past — who were both solid when they were on the field.
Stephon Robinson Jr.: A-
Stats: 46 receptions, 625 receiving yards, 10 rushes, 122 rushing yards, two TD’s
While I find it very difficult to give anyone on a 3-9 team an A level grade, Robinson receives an A- because there really wasn’t much else he could have done. The Kansas transfer consistently provided a playmaking ability that we have rarely seen from Northwestern receivers in recent seasons, and while his numbers aren’t All-American level, that has much less to do with him and more with the players who shared the starting role under-center.
Robinson led the team in both receptions and receiving yards, and two of his most memorable performances came in the form of 100-yard games in back-to-back weeks against Nebraska and Rutgers. Unfortunately, his career is now over after using his last season as a grad transfer in Evanston, but his one year in the purple and white has been much appreciated, and it’s a shame his individual success wasn’t accompanied by more of the same from his team.
Malik Washington: B+
Stats: 44 receptions, 578 receiving yards, five rushes, nine rushing yards, two TD’s
After very minimal involvement in the offense during his first two years on campus, Washington burst onto the scene this year. The junior started the season as a second-stringer, but after injuries ahead of him, he was moved into the starting lineup by Week Four.
Although he never had any massive performances numbers-wise, Washington was very consistent throughout the year and was the only player to register a catch in every game the ‘Cats played. That consistency got him very close to Robinson in terms of stats, and he will be much-needed next season with Robinson graduating.
Raymond Niro III: B-
Stats: Three receptions, 15 yards, 15 punt/kick returns, 262 return yards, 11 tackles
Although he doesn’t see much playing time at his listed position, tallying just three catches this season, Niro made his presence felt as a special teams Swiss army knife. He returned both punts and kickoffs while also making plays in punt and kick coverage. The junior wideout isn’t someone who stands out when doing a cursory look at the roster, but his effort and versatility were extremely valuable in 2021.
Jacob Gill: C+
Stats: Eight receptions, 85 yards, one TD
Gill appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman, which says a lot about the coaching staff’s confidence in his ability. While I have no doubt that the Raleigh-native could put up Washington-level numbers in a couple of seasons, grades are given based on results, not future potential. With the playing time he received, it really seems like Gill should have put up more than eight catches, but given how poor the overall play of the team was, the experience he gained will likely be more important than any statistics.
Bryce Kirtz: Incomplete
Stats: 19 receptions, 203 yards, one rush, four rushing yards
If not for injury, Kirtz would have had a chance to lead the ‘Cats in catches and receiving yards. Unfortunately, he only appeared in the first five games, and because of that, he gets an incomplete on this grading scale. The good news is this was Kirtz’s sophomore year (eligibility-wise, at least), so he has plenty of time to get his body right and will hopefully be able to play alongside Washington as a leading receiver in 2022.
JJ Jefferson: Incomplete
Stats: Five receptions, 61 yards, two rushes, 12 rushing yards
After a promising start to his collegiate career in 2018 and 2019, Jefferson ran into some serious injury troubles that kept him out for the entirety of 2020 and part of this season. Getting back on the field was an accomplishment in itself, and even more impressive was the role the Texan played in Northwestern’s single conference win this year. Jefferson may not have had the senior year he might have envisioned when he was a freshman, but his commitment and dedication to the program doesn’t go unnoticed.
Berkeley Holman: Incomplete
Stats: Three receptions, 25 yards, one TD
Like Jefferson, Holman’s upperclassman years were unfairly hampered by injuries. His 2020 season ended horrifically in East Lansing, and, after working hard to be ready for the rematch against Sparty in 2021, he didn’t see the field for two more months due to more injury issues. Holman didn’t do much in his limited game time, but he gets an incomplete because his playing time was so minimal.