Remember our wideouts?

If there was one thing that was an utter disappointment for Northwestern in the 2012 season — aside from blowing leads, an entirely different problem — it was the performance, or under-performance, of the wide receivers.

At the beginning of the season, everyone was talking as if this group was the best group of receivers in the Big Ten, if not the entire nation. Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Kyle Prater were supposed to make life easy for Kain Colter to dink and dunk his way down the field and occasionally send it deep when needed.

They were supposed to give Colter the perfect complement to his running ability and the running ability from Venric Mark. Before Mark’s emergence though, I think most of us suspected this would be a pass-heavy team. No one saw Mark emerging the way he did, but Northwestern’s passing attack was still somewhat disappointing this year. The Wildcats never got that part of their offense going and the wide receivers that were celebrated so much at the beginning of the season seemed to fade to the background.

Well, they did not really fade into the background, they became perimeter blockers. And, as Chris Emma of Scout notes, they were pretty good at that. Mark’s emergence really did change everything.

But, again, we are used to a much more dynamic and aggressive passing attack. Northwestern passed for only 2,198 passing yards — about 169.1 per game. Those are the lowest passing numbers for Northwestern since 2006 — the last time Northwestern was not bowl eligible. And wide receiver accounted for a little less than 69 percent of those completion yards (and by wide receiver I pretty much mean anyone not named Venric Mark, Kain Colter, Dan Vitale or who normally plays running back or superback).

So Northwestern’s wide receivers did not perform up to their expectations. No one is complaining too much though after a 10-win season, a bowl win and everything else.

At some point though, defenses will focus in on Venric Mark and find a way to stop the run. Sort of like how Mississippi State did. Northwestern was up to the challenge, grinding out the win behind 196 passing yards. Trevor Siemian’s three straight completions on a drive after Mississippi State tied the game at 13 in the third quarter.

The passing game was there when Northwestern needed it. And for the Wildcats to reach their next goal, they will need the balance that a solid passing game can provide.

Fortunately for Northwestern, most of the receivers that made up that group are returning. Dependable stalwart Demetrius Fields graduates, but the team’s top two receivers — Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence — return, as does Tony Jones. Not to mention Kain Colter (when he is a receiver), Venric Mark and Dan Vitale.

Colter and Trevor Siemian will have plenty of options to throw to next year. And they will be of the same quality they had this year — with a year’s worth of improvement, you would think. Kyle Prater will have a full year under his belt in the offense and at some point you have to believe his talent will show through. And as Emma notes, Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary showed promise throughout practice. Dickerson became a key player late in the season as his playing time increased.

In the never-ending optimism of the offseason, that is the hope at least that this group will blossom next year and fulfill the expectations everyone had for them this year. Once again though, the wide receivers should be a strength.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I am fairly confident of our offense (though will hold judgement on our O-Line which may have a big effect on whether we run or pass), it always comes down to the secondary. We fail to close out games partly because we dont put our foot on the gas, but mostly because we give up big plays defensively. I am not sure how much comes from tired legs in the 4th quarter, or if other teams just really “turn it up” and use raw talent over us…

    With a tough schedule next year, and high expectations, we need everything we can get. Go Cats!

    • vaudvillain

      I’m actually more concerned about the O-line than the secondary next year, as strange as that may be. I felt like the secondary made a lot of improvement as the year went on, especially with Van Hoose healthy. But with the turnover due to graduation, the O-line is a bit of an unknown quantity. And we know that even with the come-from-nowhere emergence of a running game (yay, Kainric!) the offense in general struggled to find rhythm at times. How the new O-line performs will be critical.

      • bd005

        Another ? is at the DT stop vacated by Arnfelt; need to find another big bodied run stuffer.

        • gocatsgo2003

          Hampton, Carter, and McEvilly played pretty well throughout 2012 — the addition of Robbins and Kuhar to the rotation will only help things.

    • skepticat

      I actually asked this question during one of the ESPN Big Ten chat sessions earlier in the season, and I thought they made a good point: we’ve been leading late in pretty much every game, forcing teams to hurry-up and pass, thus attacking the (traditionally) weakest part of our defense. Really, it’s not a bad position to be in (having a late lead), but certainly we could improve in all three areas: improved secondary, improved QB pressure/line play, and not getting too conservative too early.

      • JM

        I am not at all worried about the secondary next year. The VanHoose injury was probably the single biggest factor in two of our three losses (Nebraska and Michigan, who attacked his backups). The plus side of it is young guys like Jones got on the field and should be better for it next year. VanHoose, Campbell and Henry could be three of our best players next season.

        • bd005

          Agreed – VH’s injury played a part in those losses.
          The bigger question is up front – replacing Arnfelt and not going into a shell when it comes to the O when the ‘Cats have the lead in the 4th Q.

  • cece

    is it just about the wideouts or is it also about the QBs? throw the ball, catch the ball.

    • NorCalCat

      My thought exactly cece. Without having the coaches tape to go back and look at each receiver its hard to know if the sometimes lack of passing game was them not getting open or the QB’s just not able to get them the ball. Kain had a tendency to make one or two quick reads then tuck the ball and run. Which I’m not complaining about because it often worked out for us because of his athletic ability but made it hard for the passing game to get going. Trevor, from what I noticed, had a tendency to lock onto one receiver or onto his first read and force the ball even if the throw wasn’t there. I haven’t watched enough tape (or know enough about football) to know how much of our struggles were on the receivers and how much on the QBs.

      • bd005

        TS actually spreads the ball around to different receivers.
        TS has a tendency to lock into one WR when there is a fierce pass rush and he knows he doesn’t have much time to pass.
        He does sometimes force the ball into tight coverage.

  • cebod

    people underestimate the loss that Kevin Johns made on the offensive passing game.

    • gocatsgo2003

      People underestimate the loss of throwing QBs like Basanez, Bacher, Kafka, and Persa to the offensive passing game. We changed our identity this year… seems pretty simple to me.

  • rhett

    I’m not sure the stats are cause for alarm. It’s true that gross total passing yards are correlated with “good passing performance,” but they’re also correlated with “playing from behind.” Cats didn’t do a whole lot of the latter this year. That’s fine by me.

    That said, I think the point stands. It’d be nice to see Colter show up in September with a bit more mustard on his fastball.

  • Every QB at every level has to relearn how to give the ball away.

    What sets RG3 and Kaepernick (sic) apart is that they do know when to throw the ball down field, and they don’t mind handing off to the RB.

    If Kane is on a shorter leash, maybe its time to work on his reads. so he can not only run for daylight, but dink and dunk down the field, setting up for those long runs by him and Venrick.

    We saw Sunday how the read option attack can freeze a defense. Next Fall, our Cats should look a lot like the 49’ers when we’re on offense, and we will win even more games.

    • bd005

      The read-option is more effective when there is a passing threat and the D has to take that into account.

      RG3, CK and RW all use their legs to set up the pass – Persa also did the same, either rolling out on a set play or when driven from the pocket by the pass rush, still having his eyes down-field looking for open receivers.

      That’s what made Persa so dangerous and effective before his injury.

      Either KC will have to improve as a passer or the coaches will have to let TS run a hybrid of the read-option and play-action (TS is a half-decent runner).

  • cardiac_cat_fan

    This personal of this team was very different than years past, and as this article points out very clearly the emergence of Venric Mark did change every thing. To understand the “under performance” of NU’s WR corps you have to look at the scheme that OC Mick McCall has used in his tenure at NU.

    Mick McCall’s most comfortable in a dink and dunk, strategic passing attack offense. Since he’s been calling plays for NU he has had exactly the personal he needed to be effective doing so. Undersized, speedy slot WRs like Andrew Brewer and Jeremy Ebert and super-backs have thrived in this offense that is methodical and makes small gains to chew up clock despite having no serious rushing attack outside the QB.

    This year was different. McCall was handed personal much different than previous years. You have a big play threat to run in both Colter and Mark. You have large powerful WR in Christian Jones and Kyle Prater, a speedster in Tony “4.2” Jones, and talented good sized receivers in Lawrence and Dickerson.

    McCall had to learn to call plays and scheme out of his comfort zone this year, and early in the season stumbled through it. Eventually he would scheme to establish and impose the run, and use our WR for blocking (which they’re very good at) and play action deep threats. It took him time but he put all the pieces together, but by season’s end McCall was beginning to show confidence play calling for a run first offense.

    Knowing what he has talent wise I hope to see more evolution around pre-snap rushing design and more complexity in the play action passing game. Mick McCall just has to commit to imposing the run. Oh and he has that Siemien kid on deck too :)