I’m not going to insult Miles Shuler even once. I’m not a talent evaluator and I know people think he can play. Clearly, the offense fits with his skillset—much better than Rutgers’ did. But I’m also not going to invent “impact” players as we so often do during the offseason. There are two major reasons Miles Shuler will not have considerable “impact” on the 2014 roster.
First, how much is there for him to do? The point of this season involves establishing their two best receivers: Tony Jones and Christian Jones. When the NU offense succeeded in the season finale against Illinois, it was because Trevor Siemian found his best guys and worked them all over the field. I expect those two to have an increased role with the more traditional QB in Siemian. Crazy thing about “increased”: The Joneses combined for 109 catches last year, which accounted for 64 percent of the receivers’ catches. Dan Vitale—another returning weapon—had 34 and that superback number should only grow with the emergence of redshirt freshman Jayme Taylor. There’s not much room for him to slide in—and that’s only compounded by their use of running backs.
Last year, running backs caught 37 passes. Though they averaged only about seven yards per catch, that short passing game forms a huge part of the offense. Now, something else changed the dimensions of their attack. Northwestern has two true freshman running backs that I am confident will burn their redshirts: Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault. The two are talented and both are taking reps in the slot. As Macray Poidomani of Lake the Posts observed, Vault and Shuler clearly run “similar” types of plays. It’s another overlap; the depth chart just doesn’t work for Shuler. Jackson will be used right away and Vault was made to play out of the slot. There are other guys in the offense who can fit the mold that Shuler does. It’s too much to say he can distinguish himself that much to earn a dominant role.
The top of the receiving corps leaves little room for other catches. The running backs and select parts are filling the role that Shuler could have occupied alone. This overlap—and this lack of space—explain why Miles Shuler could be redundant in the Northwestern offense this year.
I find it hard to believe that Northwestern won't find some way to get Miles Shuler involved in its offense this year. The Wildcats have spent all summer implementing a system reliant on the short pass, and Shuler—one of the fastest recruits in the country a few years ago—is among the receiving corps' best options there. Tony Jones is best used as a vertical threat, while Christian Jones' size stretches defenses over the middle of the field. Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater have yet to establish consistency, and Pierre Youngblood-Ary has yet to piece together anything resembling one complete game. Shuler is the best look for a quarterback that functions by maintaining a high completion percentage. I expect both him and Dan Vitale to see ample targets against nonconference opponents, as Siemian builds confidence and tempo in the short game.
Speaking of quarterback...Shuler is certainly capable of commanding carries from under center. Northwestern's playcalling was horribly unimaginative last year, and the former dual-threat QB who spent all fall quarterbacking for the scout team offers immense lineup flexibility. From what we saw in spring practice, Shuler can go sideline to sideline without breaking a sweat, and if the one-quarterback offense falters early, I'm confident that Fitzgerald would install Shuler for a few options. We saw him field wide receiver reverses in spring ball, too.
I believe in Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault. From what we're hearing, it seems likely that both will see the field at some point this year. But I feel far more comfortable giving screens to a junior—especially one that has an awful lot to lose this season. Fitzgerald prioritizes seniority, and though all three players are in their first year with the Wildcats, I like the maturity Shuler has already shown. He was my favorite interview of spring, and Shuler emphasized to me how comfortable he feels with the offense and how much he's worked to become a "complete receiver, not a situational one."
As I wrote last week, none of the running backs have proven to be particularly excellent receivers. Shuler has the chance to emerge as a reliable check-down and a good option on misdirections, options and reverses. With Venric Mark suspended, Northwestern is missing a needed flashy skill player. Shuler's skill set indicates that in the right system, he could be that guy.