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.