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2021 Northwestern football position previews: Wide Receivers

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With the starting trio gone, who will step up?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Stanford John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

Key losses: Riley Lees (Cincinnati Bengals), Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (Indianapolis Colts), Kyric McGowan (Transfer, Georgia Tech)

Returners: JJ Jefferson (Sr.), Berkeley Holman (Sr.), Malik Washington (Jr.), Wayne Dennis Jr. (R-So.), Preston Bacon (R-So.), Bryce Kirtz (R-So.), Genson Hooper Price (R-So.), Braeden Heald (R-Jr.), Will Lansbury (Sr.), Jack Kennedy (R-So.), Jack Moses (So.),

Newcomers: Stephan Robinson Jr (Grad transfer, Kansas), Jacob Gill (Fr.), Donnie Gray (Fr.), Calvin Johnson II (Fr.), Jordan Mosley (Fr.)

The gift of last season’s relative success must come with a price, and this year that price is saying goodbye to three fan-favorite starting receivers who made their mark in Evanston. Riley Lees, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Kyric McGowan composed the majority of Northwestern’s receiving game last season, combining for 1,088 yards and 7 touchdowns. Their chemistry with Peyton Ramsey was an integral part of the ‘Cats’ Big Ten West title, and replacing their impact both on and off the field looms as a steep challenge for NU given the position room’s general lack of experience and collegiate production.

Having established the air game as a real asset to NU’s offensive plan last season, it’s now up to the likes of senior JJ Jefferson, junior Malik Washington and redshirt sophomore Bryce Kirtz to close the experience gap. Though their bodies of work are limited behind the departing trio, Jefferson, Washington and Kirtz have seen the field more than the other returners and therefore should be Bajakian’s first looks as far as game-time maturity goes. On top of that, Northwestern welcomes grad transfer Stephan Robinson Jr. from Kansas, who, having totaled 75 receptions and 14 yards per catch throughout his three seasons as a Jayhawk, can also bring in some much needed juice and explosiveness to this offense.

Redshirt sophomores Genson Hooper Price and Wayne Dennis Jr. also might nab some playing time. Though Hooper Price has yet to see the field in his time at NU, the former highly touted three-star recruit now has a window of opportunity to prove his worth, and Dennis Jr. can build on the few appearances he made during the 2020 season. Nonetheless, those two along with highly anticipated incoming freshmen CJ Johnson II and Jordan Mosley are poised to be the future of Northwestern’s receiving corps, which might very well be one of the brightest futures this team has seen in a while.

Key Player:

JJ Jefferson

Before opting out of the 2020 season, Jefferson was the most experienced wide-receiver on the Northwestern squad behind Lees, RCB and McGowan. As a true freshman during the ‘Cats previous Big Ten West campaign in 2018, Jefferson appeared in 12 games and pulled in 181 yards, his best performances coming in NU’s 10-point win over Minnesota and overtime win versus Nebraska, where he totaled 40 yards and one touchdown on four receptions.

Though appearing in only seven games his sophomore season, Jefferson still racked up more than 155 yards and two receiving touchdowns, one of which came against divisional foe Wisconsin. His absence in 2020 leaves question marks surrounding what progress he’s made in his time off, but his existing stat-line suggests he could play a big role in the upcoming season should he find chemistry with transfer quarterback Ryan Hilinski (the assumed-by-many starter at QB, though nothing is set in stone). With the extra practice time under his belt, and his explosive ability to burn defenders up and down the sideline, Jefferson is the most likely candidate to fill the massive void in receiving production for the ‘Cats in 2021.

Big Question:

Will star recruits Calvin Johnson II and Jordan Mosley play a role this season?

With the exception of a small handful of upperclassmen, Northwestern’s receiving corps this year is overwhelmingly young, but also full of potential, which rests mostly in the hands of incoming freshmen Calvin Johnson II and Jordan Mosley. Both joined the Wildcat ranks at the beginning of this year after de-committing from Navy and Tennessee, respectively, just weeks before announcing their recruitment truly coming to an end in purple and white.

Mosely, a four-star and the highest rated member of the incoming recruiting class, is one of the quickest wide-outs Northwestern has ever seen. The Mobile, Alabama, native runs a modest 4.3 second 40-yard dash, which is only slightly representative of the speed he harbors on the field. Johnson II announced his commitment to NU just four days after Mosley, choosing the ‘Cats over the likes of Penn State and TCU. Aside from an outstanding academic record including a 35 ACT score and perfect 4.0 GPA, the three-star from French Camp, Mississippi, is a multi-purpose threat having played quarterback and a host of defensive positions in addition to his role as a wide-out and kick-returner.

If both freshmen can gel with whoever is throwing passes for the ‘Cats this year, there’s a good chance they could pull in significant minutes given that almost no roles are solidified in this specific position group. In addition, with the reinstatement of non-conference matchups before Big Ten play, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them on the field fiel against Duke, Indiana State or Ohio in preparation for the tougher matchups later on in the season. From that, coaches and fans alike will get a taste of what Johnson II and Mosley are capable of at a D-I level and go from there. Either way, it’s clear the future of the Northwestern receiving squad is bright.

Depth Chart

2021 WR Depth Chart

Depth Chart Starters Reserves (1) Reserves (2)
Depth Chart Starters Reserves (1) Reserves (2)
WR1 JJ Jefferson Stephan Robinson Jr. Genson Hooper Price
WR2 Malik Washington Wayne Dennis Jr. Calvin Johnson II
WR3 Bryce Kirtz Berkeley Holman Jordan Mosely