With Persa running the offense, Northwestern was on pace to have one of the nation's top passing offenses, but that quickly fell apart once he was injured.
This season, Persa is back, and so are a slew of impressive targets. For the sake of organization, we're going to break this group into three categories: the veterans, the youngsters, and the up-and-comers.
The spring brought a few new names to the mix at wide receiver, but this group's strength is its veteran leadership. Northwestern has seven upperclassmen returning at wide receiver and superback.
Fittingly enough, the first wide receiver we will mention is senior Jeremy Ebert. He goes first because he is so often Dan Persa's first thought when dropping back for a pass. Last season, Ebert amounted for 62 catches for nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, while earning First-Team All-Big Ten honors.
Ebert is back for his senior season, and will likely serve as Persa's go-to man once again. One advantage Ebert has this season is the benefit of a full and healthy spring—something which was not the case a year ago.
If both Ebert and Persa can remain healthy this season, the duo can post some huge numbers.
Senior Charles Brown is a returning senior, but could almost be classified as an up-and-comer, thanks to a strong spring. The 5-11, 180-lb. target has just 26 catches in his three-year career, but is poised for big things after a standout performance during the Wildcats' 15 spring practices.
At the spring's conclusion, NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald named Brown "MVP of the Spring", and for good reason. The senior made the most of his two-month gap between the TicketCity Bowl and the spring, and look much improved.
This season, Brown could be tops on the depth chart opposite of Ebert, and with any luck, could carry his strong spring into the fall.
One of the heroes of last season, Demetrius Fields is hoping to have a strong junior season. The 6-0, 205-lb. junior delivered with the game-winning touchdown grab against Iowa last season—one of his 25 receptions. Fields is another reliable target, who is likely to have a larger role in the passing game this season.
At superback, it all starts with senior Drake Dunsmore. Last season, Dunsmore was Mr. Reliable for the Wildcats. He would finish the season with 40 catches and five touchdowns.
Superbacks are an important part of Northwestern's offense, so look for Drake Dunsmore to have another big season. He rounds out the Wildcats' loaded group of upperclassmen.
Last season, a group of freshman made their mark (no pun intended) in the Northwestern offense. Now, Venric Mark, Rashad Lawrence, and Tony Jones each have a year of experience under their belt, and are ready for more.
As a freshman, Venric Mark served as an all-purpose threat for the Wildcats. He was had a minor role in the Wildcats' offense, but made a bigger impact on special teams. This season, Mark is likely to have a much larger role in the offense.
Rashad Lawrence is another sophomore looking to build on a strong freshman year. Like Mark, Lawrence played in all 13 games, and finished with 12 catches for 176 yards.
The Orlando native often uses his 6-2 frame to his advantage. Lawrence is coming off a stellar spring, and is highly likely to see a greater role in the Wildcats' offense this season.
As a freshman, Tony Jones had his biggest moment on the first pass thrown to him—a 45-yard pass from Persa against Minnesota.
Jones played in just eight games as a freshman, while battling a shoulder injury. He battled injuries again this spring, but that should not have any effect on him this fall. Jones is another versatile option in the Wildcats' passing game.
Northwestern's 2011 recruiting class saw the additions of Christian Jones, Xavier Youngblood-Ary, and Cameron Dickerson at wide receiver, and Waubonsie Valley standout Mark Szott at superback. Of the four, Jones may be the most likely to see playing time this season, but even that could be unlikely. With a loaded depth chart at hand, the incoming freshmen may not see playing time just yet.
The spring gave a few unheralded wide receivers a chance to shine, and a few took advantage of that opportunity. Sophomore walk-on Mike Jensen was one of those names which Pat Fitzgerald singled out at the end of the spring. A former defensive back, Jensen is making a nice transition to wide receiver. Now, he's hoping for the chance to play.
Moulton is regarded as one of the faster players on the team, but has been injured throughout most of his career, and is looking for the chance to show off. This may be the year you see the sophomore get some reps with the offense.
As for Dupper, the walk-on is working for a larger role in the offense for the future. He's unlikely to see reps this season, but Dupper's hard work has him in line for some playing time down the road.
Junior superback Brett Nagel has his 2011 season up in the air after a devastating shoulder injury forced him to miss the end of the spring. That means John Plasencia could have the chance to serve as a blocking tight end (superback) on occasion.
Preaseason Grade: A-
With the exception of quarterbacks, this is the Wildcats' strongest unit on the team. Dan Persa will have a variety of different options to look for this season. The wide receivers and superbacks have a great mix of experience and talented up-and-comers. With the help of their quarterback, this unit could be form one of the strongest passing attacks in the country.