It didn’t hit Kyle Prater when he crept past a Northern Illinois safety and sprawled out between the seams for the first touchdown of his college career. Nor did it hit him when the game finished and Prater was the Wildcats’ leading receiver.
It sunk in a few hours later in the parking lot of Ryan Field. Prater, sitting in a car with his parents, sister and girlfriend, began tearing up. After injuries to his knee, foot, groin, hamstring and thumb derailed a promising career, the former five-star prospect played like a No. 1 receiver and team captain.
Northwestern’s wideouts are an excellent gage of what the program is going through right now. The unit was blind spotted by the loss of its top two talents in Christian and Tony Jones. It has also shown flashes of brilliance, spliced between long stretches of inconsistency and sluggishness. And if the Wildcats are to reverse their nightmarish start to the season, its wide receivers have to exceed expectations more than almost any other position group.
A myriad of adversities left those expectations so low. Without Christian Jones for the year and Tony for the time being, NU’s receiving corps is made up of the embattled Prater, the touted transfer struggling to find the right system in Miles Shuler, and patient second-stringers in Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary. But despite horrific offensive line play and an inconsistent quarterback, the wideouts have given Northwestern a few of its best chances to win games thus far: Dickerson’s 54-yard touchdown against Cal snapped a lifeless performance from the rest of the team, while Youngblood-Ary’s 54-yard score down the sideline promptly turned a blowout into a one-score game.
The next step, Prater says, is to establish focus and consistently provide the punch for an offense that has no other semblance of one through two weeks.
“Right now, this is the best we’ve ever understood the offense,” Dickerson tells PurpleWildcats.com. “But we need to make some more things happen on the field, because the play around us isn’t always going to be perfect.”
Dickerson figures to be the Wildcats’ best vertical threat. At 6-3, he’s the tallest target on the team, and already showed off impressive open-field speed against Cal. The dropped passes make him more unreliable than Prater, who was a convincing possession receiver last Saturday.
The grueling practices this week have been primarily focused on simulating short routes and bubble passes, and speedster Stephen Buckley has joined the unit in drills. Dickerson has spent time learning the nuances of playing as an inside receiver as well as an outside one. This is the group that has to give Northwestern its flash. The offensive line won’t, and it’s becoming apparent that without Kain Colter, Siemian won’t, either. Trevyon Green and two freshmen running backs certainly don’t stand much of a chance right now.
Mick McCall tells PW that Youngblood-Ary does deserve more reps. Wide receivers coach Dennis Springer says Austin Carr could earn opportunities as well. But at the moment, the field is wide open for four talented but troubled players. The team has fielded two leading receivers in two games; it’s not exactly crazy to think that the trend continues for a few more weeks. That’s a subtle cause for optimism, and if a few playmakers can clean up their games before Tony Jones returns, Northwestern’s receivers become a needed strength.
“We learn conceptually that everyone can do everything in this offense,” Prater says. “We have a lot of making up to do. But in no shape or form are we in panic mode.”
“We all trust each other. We’re all in for the common goal. There’s a lot of competition, don’t get me wrong, but we’re all interested in the betterment of each other. If K.P. goes for 200 yards, I’ll probably be happier than he will be,” Dickerson adds.
Springer says that the receivers are functioning by a simple motto: The Future Is Now. It’s not as trite as it sounds. After years of inactivity, Dickerson and Youngblood-Ary are earning the chance they deserve. Prater and Shuler have seen their careers drastically reroute, only to arrive at ample opportunities for both targets and leadership positions. These kids have nothing to lose, and if they play that way, they give Northwestern a more realistic chance of winning.