On Wednesday, Northwestern announced that Venric Mark will transfer and Christian Jones will miss the upcoming season. Mark's school switch received more attention, and it's not hard to understand why. Just two years ago, Mark was one of the top running backs and kick returners in the country, and he had spoken optimistically this offseason about returning to the field after missing most of 2013 with an injury. To find out that Mark won't ever suit up again for Northwestern ... you can say it caught a lot of people by surprise.
We've already broken down the impact of losing Mark, so let's focus on how Jones' absence will affect the offense. Jones reportedly suffered a knee injury - which sucks, especially when you consider what happened during his recruitment. In 12 games last season, Jones - who is Northwestern's active leading receiver - caught 55 passes for a team-high 668 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He ended 2013 with one of the best performances of his career, a 13-catch, 182-yard, two touchdown day against Illinois.
The Wildcats can't replace Jones, but they have a few guys who seem capable of stepping up to mitigate the impact of him being lost for the year. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler has drawn positive reviews in training camp and preseason workouts. Shuler is probably the fastest player Northwestern has - he won state titles (NJ) in the 100-meter dasha and 55-meter indoors (and ran 4.38 40-yard dash). Of course, that speed didn't translate into consistent production during his two seasons at Rutgers, when he caught five passes for 71 yards with zero touchdowns.
There's reason to be optimistic about Shuler's fit at Northwestern. For one, the spread offense the Wildcats run suits him better than Rutgers' pro-style attack. Shuler also could provide something the Wildcats desperately need: big plays. Northwestern registered only 18 games of 30 or more yards last season, ranking 107th in the country, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly. Another helpful Connelly stat: Of the eight Northwestern receivers who caught at least nine passes last year, three averaged less than 7.1 YPC and only one greater than 12.4 (Rashad Lawrence).
Shuler may not have touched the ball often during his time with the Scarlet Knights, but when he did, good things happened. He averaged 14.2 yards per reception in 2012 and 7.0 yards per rush in 2011. In an offense more amenable to his skill set, could Shuler replicate those per-play numbers over a larger sample size? Can he stretch the field and open things up for Northwestern's other possession receivers underneath? Can he catch short passes and turn them into big plays - you know, like this? That's one way to lessen the blow of losing Jones.
Another player who needs to step up? Junior superback Dan Vitale. After shining as a freshman in 2012 - including nine receptions for 110 yards against Michigan State and seven for 82 against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl -- Vitale's production dipped over the course of last season. Looking at the final 10 games, he posted averages of 2.5 catches and fewer than 24 yards. As our own Henry Bushnell pointed out, Vitale should be operating in more favorable offensive conditions this year, with Northwestern expected to lean more heavily on the pass.
Vitale should have more room to operate over the middle and, with Jones out, Northwestern should look to target him more often. Vitale's proven he can be productive if given enough touches, though it remains to be seen whether he'll blossom into the Dunsmorian-type receiving threat many predicted he'd become a couple years ago. Vitale already figured to be a bigger part of the offense this season. Now that Jones isn't around (and with no indication Vitale's in danger of ceding playing time to someone else), it's a safe bet more passes will be thrown to him.
The good news for Northwestern is that there are other receivers who can do some of the things Jones can. Cameron Dickerson, like Jones, is a possession receiver who's shown promise over his first couple of seasons. A lot of folks seem to think former super-recruit Kyle Prater can do good things in 2014 (others think the optimism is unwarranted); at the very least, he's tall enough to draw defensive attention in the red zone. And then there are the mostly (or totally) unproven guys who've looked good in workouts, like Pierre Youngblood-Ary and Solomon Vault.
And lest we forget: Tony Jones is pretty good, too. He's more of a big-play threat than Christian Jones is, and he should have more opportunities this season, given Siemian will be under center full-time. What I'm getting at here is that this will be a group effort. Losing Jones leaves a void in Northwestern's offense, but the Wildcats have people to fill that void. If there's a silver lining, it's that we'll get a good look at the quality of Northwestern's depth at receiver. Other players will asked to play above themselves, take on bigger work loads. Will they rise to they occasion?
Bottom line: losing your top receiver less than three weeks before the start of the season is brutal. Northwestern will make adjustments. How effective those adjustments will be is up in the air.