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2022 Northwestern football position preview: Wide receivers

The outside starting spot is up for grabs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Minnesota at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


Returning starters: Malik Washington (Sr.), Bryce Kirtz (Jr.)

Key losses: Stephon Robinson Jr. (NFL Free Agent), J.J. Jefferson (Graduation), Berkeley Holman (Graduation)

Returners: Ray Niro III (Sr.), Jacob Gill (Fy.), Genson Hooper Price (Jr.), Wayne Dennis Jr. (Jr.), Preston Bacon (Jr.), Jack Kennedy (Jr.), Donnie Gray (So.), Calvin Johnson II (So.), Jasper Stratton (So,)

Newcomers: Reggie Fleurima (Fy.), Donny Navarro III (R-Jr.)

It’s hard to evaluate the 2021 receiving group’s performance as a whole when there were so many variables to consider. The group put up its highest yards per reception average (10.2) in three years, but how much of that success can be attributed to Northwestern playing most of its football from behind? And though NU heavily relied on Stephon Robinson Jr. and Malik Washington for well over half of that production, could things have been different with more quarterback stability and a healthy Bryce Kirtz?

One thing’s for certain in 2022: Washington and Kirtz should spearhead the receiving attack. Both played prominent roles in the offense before Kirtz suffered a season-ending injury midway through last season. No other returning wideout posted more than 100 receiving yards in 2021, so the passing attack will likely center around that duo again.

Replacing Robinson’s explosiveness on the outside will be a huge challenge. Jacob Gill, Genson Hooper Price or even first-year Reggie Fleurima could contribute as third options. The receiving core brings much more continuity than it did last season, but the group’s lack of on-field experience raises lots of questions. The future may be bright with Fleurima, Donnie Gray and CJ Johnson II still in the fold, but they may not provide the immediate depth Northwestern currently lacks.

Key Player:

Malik Washington

Washington enters 2022 as the undisputed top receiver and the biggest downfield threat on the team. The rising senior wreaked havoc from the slot as the second option last year, putting up 575 yards and two touchdowns on 43 catches. He also exhibited a remarkable knack for making contested catches. Per PFF, he was also the first ‘Cats wideout with more than 60 targets to post a catch rate north of 70 percent since Austin Carr did so in 2016.

The fact that Washington does most of his damage from inside the numbers makes him even more of an X-factor. Carr was Northwestern’s last top receiving option to work out of the slot, and NU gained more yards through the air that year than any other in the last decade. If Mike Bajakian can effectively utilize Washington again, the star receiver’s presence alone can create big plays for others:

As the inside receiver on the left side of the field, Washington’s release to the inside off the snap is quick enough to briefly get the attention of the deep safety in Duke’s Cover 1 defense. The safety’s hesitation gives Hunter Johnson just enough time to find Kirtz (the isolated wideout at the bottom of the screen) beating his man down the field.

If Washington can continue taking defensive attention away from Kirtz and other outside receivers, Fitz and Co. may find the receiving depth it lacked in 2021. The big plays will come for him no matter who is under center, it’s just a matter of how many he can generate for his supporting cast.

Big Question:

Who will emerge as the starter opposite Bryce Kirtz?

This is something I touched on a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. Robinson’s departure leaves a spot on the outside wide open for the taking. Hooper Price and Gill are just two of the many receivers competing for that role.

Bajakian could go the unconventional route and constantly rotate receivers depending on the matchup and game scenario Northwestern faces. Hooper Price and Wayne Dennis Jr. stand at 6’5” and 6’4” respectively, potentially giving the ‘Cats key red zone threats on the outside. Gill offers big play ability with his speed and release. Involving all of those players in the offense in some capacity could open up the field if they can produce.

If is a key word there. That’s not saying anything about the potential options, but rather Northwestern’s offensive system as a whole. NU’s three quarterbacks targeted Robinson and Washington so often in 2021 that they failed to consistently generate opportunities for other receivers late in the season, even in garbage time. The ‘Cats could avoid that problem by establishing a clear tertiary option in the group before conference play begins.

Depth Chart

Projected 2022 WR Depth Chart

Position Starters Second String Third String
Position Starters Second String Third String
WR1 Malik Washington Wayne Dennis Jr. Preston Bacon
WR2 Bryce Kirtz Jacob Gill
WR3 Ray Niro II Genson Hooper Price