WildcatReport continues its position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Wildcats by looking at wide receivers and superbacks.
If there's a place for improvement on the offensive side of the ball for the Northwestern Wildcats, it is in the passing game. While the Cats used a strong rushing attack on their way to 10 wins last season, the passing game left something to be desired. Northwestern averaged just 169.1 yards per game through the air last season and finished 110th in the nation in the category.
While the play of the quarterbacks and the game plans of offensive coordinator Mick McCall certainly had a lot to do with those paltry numbers -- as did the fact that the ground game was running like a well-oiled machine and, hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- Northwestern's receiver corps is simply too deep and talented to be an afterthought in 2013.
The good news? Almost every contributing player is headed back to Evanston. Top yardage earners Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence and superback Dan Vitale all return for Northwestern. Those four players combined for over half of Northwestern's total receptions and more than 60 percent of receiving yards. Demetrius Fields was the only significant threat lost to graduation.
Despite returning four of its top five receivers, Northwestern also has a litany of other players ready to break in to the rotation. Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary will both look for increased roles in the offense in 2013.
With another year of experience for each of these receivers and the progression of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at the quarterback spot, it's not unreasonable to expect an increase in production from the receivers.
USC transfer Kyle Prater will certainly be expected to contribute more in his second season as a Wildcat. The former five-star wide receiver, who was the No. 3 player overall coming out of high school, hauled in just 10 passes for 54 yards in 2012. If nothing else, he should be capable of using his 6-foot-5 frame to be a third-down and red-zone target in his junior season.
Though the line of scrimmage is already crowded with possible receivers for 2013, redshirt freshmen Andrew Scanlan and Mike McHugh, and true freshmen Tommy Fuessel and Macan Wilson will also enter the fold for Northwestern.
What we liked in 2012: The emergence of Vitale
He may not be a wide receiver, but this superback certainly made his mark as a pass catcher as a true freshman in 2012. After starting the season with five catches for 31 yards through Northwestern's first five games, Vitale took off in the final few games of the year. He scored his first touchdown on a 10-yard strike from Siemian against Nebraska and tacked on another score against Michigan.
Vitale's performance against Michigan State, however, was his shining moment and had Pat Fitzgerald beaming after the 23-20 victory. He reeled in a game-high nine receptions for 110 yards. He then followed up that performance by catching seven more balls for 82 yards in a Gator Bowl win.
After being named to ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Freshman Team, the expectations for a repeat performance are high. Should Vitale play at a similar level in 2013, the Wildcats will have a dangerous weapon at their disposal.
What we want more of in 2013: Cameron Dickerson on the field
If Northwestern fans are looking for a big, strong receiver who can make an impact in 2013, they look no further than Dickerson. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound redshirt sophomore only had limited opportunities last season, but he made them count. He made a terrific touchdown grab against Michigan at the end of the first half to tie the game for Northwestern, and he hauled in eight other passes over the course of the season.
His spring practice performance, however, was the true selling point. Dickerson dominated opposing defensive backs during several different practice sessions. He showed the proper mix of speed, agility and physicality required for a Big Ten receiver and could be in for a big year.
Northwestern will be successful at the wide receiver position in 2013 if… a big-play threat develops
Perhaps the biggest complaint about last year's passing game was its lack of big plays. Northwestern was ranked last in the Big Ten and near the bottom of the country in long passing plays. The team had just 23 passing plays of 20 yards or more, eight plays of 30 yards or more, and four plays of 40 yards or more. Conversely, the Cats ranked 23rd in the nation in long runs, which was good for fourth in the Big Ten and helped Northwestern win games.
The emergence of a deep passing target would keep defenses honest and could take Northwestern to the next level.
The Bottom Line:
With Colter, Venric Mark and the read-option game at its disposal, Northwestern isn't about to become a Top 25-ranked passing squad. That's just not the identity of this team with the players Fitzgerald has put in place. However, if last year's starters perform at a slightly higher level, Prater improves upon last season's output and a few new guys step up, the Northwestern passing game could demand more respect, thereby making an already productive offense downright scary.
With improved quarterbacks and a wealth of options at receiver, this is a position group to watch this season.
Next up: Offensive line