The wide receiver group for Northwestern may be the biggest question mark on the roster going into the season. There is no clear picture of who will line up when Clayton Thorson takes his first snap of the season on September 3rd (although history tells us it will be a running play anyway) and to head coach Pat Fitzgerald, that is a strength.
“I think we’ve got competitive depth. We’re back to having competitive depth out there, which as a coach that’s what you want.”
Depth they do have, with a lot of new faces hoping to earn a roster spot in these final few weeks, although it appears it will remain a revolving door once the season starts unless someone takes a starting spot and keeps it.
Northwestern will be without their top wide receiver from last season, Dan Vitale. Vitale led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns, which means those will be very difficult shoes to fill at super back. Garrett Dickerson showed flashes last season, but it’ll be a lot to ask of him to be Thorson’s top target this season. Dickerson proved to be a competent receiver, but his strength is as a blocker with that 6’3”, 220-pound frame.
Vitale was Thorson’s favorite and most reliable receiver, but he also lost three other seniors – Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Mike McHugh. So where will Thorson look first when he takes his first snap? It starts with Austin Carr. Carr put together a really solid season as part of an overall weak passing attack, second on the team behind Vitale with 302 yards and two touchdowns. Carr will need to pick up where he left off and improve on what he did last season, while setting an example for the young group around him.
The other familiar face you’ll see lining up for Northwestern will be converted running back and kick returner Solomon Vault. Vault didn’t see a ton of time at running back last season but he was one of the most electric return men in the Big Ten and they are hoping he can transfer those skills to the slot receiver spot. As a kick returner he was 2nd in yards, 5th in return average and his two punt returns for touchdowns led the Big Ten. If Vault’s hands can match his blazing speed, he could be a great weapon for Thorson across the middle of the field and on screens.
Beyond Carr and Vault, this position group is going to be a game of musical chairs. Flynn Nagel looked good in limited time last season before he was injured so look for him to see a lot of opportunities early. Marcus McShepard is moving over from cornerback to play some wide receiver, which he played in high school and Fitzgerald said he has grown exponentially in spring practices. Andrew Scanlan is a junior who has mostly played on special teams but could be a deep threat, and red shirt freshman Charlie Fessler is generating some buzz in training camp.
Bottom line, the depth chart at this point is anyone’s guess. It does, however, give Thorson an opportunity to build a receiving core that he is most comfortable with as opposed to the group he adopted when he stepped into the role last season. It is going to be all about chemistry as Fitzgerald and company mix and match while they look for a regular rotation. But the passing game is going to have to be a major factor in the offense if Northwestern wants to be a well-rounded team that can compete in the Big Ten West. As we highlighted in our running back preview Northwestern will be built around Justin Jackson, but Jackson can only be so effective if defenses know the ball is going to him two-thirds of the time. If any two of these receivers, or someone we have yet to mention, can turn himself into a downfield threat, it really opens things up for Jackson and the run game. Right now it’s all questions until the offense takes the field on September 3rd.