In good hands

Northwestern will be losing a prolific pass-catching tandem after this season. But with a pair of three-star receiver prospects already committed – and the possibility that a third could join them – it looks like the Wildcats will be able to replenish the void left by the imminent departure of Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer.

There is nothing wrong with Northwestern's wide receivers. In fact, there is a lot to like.

Wideouts Zeke Markshausen, Andrew Brewer, Demetrius Fields and Sidney Stewart – along with super back Drake Dunsmore – helped fuel a Northwestern passing attack that ranked second in the Big Ten with more than 266 yards per game. Markshausen and Brewer were Nos. 2 and 9, respectively, in the conference in receptions, and each was in the top six in receiving yards per game. Four different Wildcats had at least 32 catches, led by Markshausen's 79, and the group certainly helped QB Mike Kafka garner second-team All-Big Ten honors.

So it's not like NU was hurting for receivers. And you need reliable receivers in offensive coordinator Mick McCall's pass-happy scheme. NU, after all, had more attempts and completions than any Big Ten outfit. Can't do that without solid receivers.

But while the receiving corps was reliable this season, it was also a bit predictable. For all the chain-moving catches, the Wildcat receivers weren't what you would call big-play threats.

That fact will probably change in the seasons to come. Markshausen, Brewer and Stewart are all seniors. That makes the pending arrival of a pair – at least – of ballyhooed receiver commits that much more enticing.

Grand Blanc, Mich., receiver Tony Jones and Orlando, Fla., native Rashad Lawrence – both three-star prospects – are heading to Evanston next season, and each figures to provide a little more game-breaking ability than ‘09's receivers. And if Corona, Calif., standout Austin Hill – who is visiting NU this weekend – were to commit as well, there would likely be even more headaches for opposing defenses.

ADDENDUM: A reader rightly pointed out that I forgot to include Jimmy Hall, a two-star receiver from Sylvania, Ohio, who has also committed to NU. Hall had offers from Syracuse, Kansas, Colorado, West Virginia and others, so he's no slouch. Definitely should have mentioned him in the initial article. Pretty bad oversight on my part...apologies to Hall and all the readers.

As well as the receivers played this season, it looks like Fitz and McCall* will have a more athleticism to work with the next few years.

* I was going to write a whole article about this, but a long aside should suffice. Back in August, Purple Reign looked at Mick McCall's two years as an offensive coordinator, seeing if there were any trends Wildcat fans could expect from NU's offense. Here's the article. It reaches short-story length, however, so if you haven't the time nor inclination, here are the Cliff Notes:

With two different quarterbacks at two different schools, McCall's offenses operated staggeringly similarly: In ‘07, with McCall as O-Coordinator, Bowling Green's Tyler Sheehan threw 36.6 passes per game – 476 attempts over a 13-game campaign. That's nothing special, really. Not until you juxtapose it with C.J. Bacher's 2008 pass-per-game number: 37 (408 attempts in 11 games). And both of those guys' stats were noticeably different without McCall. (Read the article for those guys' non-McCall stats….)

Well, McCall had a third new quarterback, Kafka, in his third season as an O-coordinator. And this QB – without doubt – came in with a run-first history. So, what happened to the offense? What happened to those 37 passes per game?

If you think things were almost exactly the same, you're right. In 12 games, Kafka threw the ball 414** times, which is 34.5 attempts per game. Now, that's obviously not 37. But don't forget that there was some tag-team quarterbacking going on. And when you throw in Dan Persa's 34 attempts, NU's grand total of pass attempts this season was 448. Or, 37.3 per game.

Three different seasons, three different quarterbacks, and a difference of just .7 passes per game. Call it the McCall Mold.

** There were three non-QB throws this season, two of which went for touchdowns and all of which were completed. Markshausen threw a 38-yard TD strike, and Brewer threw a 24-yard TD. Kicker Stefan Demos was also one-for-one for nine yards.

Back to the receivers. Markshausen, who had at least five catches in eight of the team's final 10 games en route to 79 total, had a long this season of just 30 yards. There were only two other receivers in the Big Ten who had at least 11 catches who had a long of 30-or-fewer yards. One of them was NU's own Fields, who had 23 catches and a long of 14 yards, and the other was Indiana's Mitchell Evans, who had 33 catches and a long of just 27 yards.

Now, there were some other players in the Big Ten who had at least 11 catches and a long of less than 30, but they were all tight ends and running backs. (Dunsmore, who plays super back, had 38 catches and a long of 28.) What's more, six different Big Ten players who had five or fewer catches had longs of more than 30 yards. Zeke was one of only three qualifying wide receivers in the Big Ten who averaged less than 10 yards per catch, along with Indiana's Terrance Turner and Fields.

So while Markshausen was the conference's second-most prolific receiver – only Purdue's Keith Smith had more catches – he still wasn't a candidate to break a big one. The fact that Markshausen only had three touchdowns and 774 yards on 79 catches shows that he wasn't much of a big-play threat.

(Again, this isn't an indictment of Markshausen and Brewer. Can't stress this enough. They were the conference's most prolific tag-team duo. I'll remind you of this article written in late September lauding Markshausen. Believe me, I'm a fan.)

Brewer was a little more apt to bust the big one – but only a little. He had a 72-yarder in the season's first game against Towson, and he had catches of 51 and 52 yards against Indiana and Illinois. Still, though, he didn't often get loose behind defenses. He averaged less than 15 yards per catch in five games and averaged less than 20 in all but two.

Stewart, who had 32 catches this season, and Fields, who had 23, were other regular targets of Kafka this season. And they, too, struggled to bust the big one.

Part of this, of course, has to do with the design of McCall's offense, which thrives on short passes, on dinks and dumps and crosses and screens. And you can't break every one of those for a big play.

But you can break some of them for big plays. And NU really didn't do that this season. And it makes sense. After all, Brewer came to Northwestern as a quarterback and happened to be athletic and heady enough to thrive at receiver. And Markshausen was a walk-on until earning a scholarship last off-season; he had just one career catch coming into this season. That makes what he's done that much more remarkable, but it makes the lack of big plays that much more explicable. With a quarterback and former walk-on spearheading the NU receiving attack, it's no surprise that there weren't a ton of big plays.

For the foreseeable future, thanks to the imminent influx of talent, NU won't have to rely on converts and walk-ons. Jones, who was being recruited by Michigan State, Stanford and a boatload of other schools, has a 4.45 40. And, according to Scout.com's recruiting analysts, he has other attributes that should help turn those little dump passes into long gains. His Scout bio reads: "Jones has fantastic explosion and run after the catch ability. He is elusive, quick and can make people miss in the open field."

Video highlights of the 6-foot, 180-pound Jones show that he made a living in high school running the spread, turning short passes into long ones.

And the 6-1, 190-pound Lawrence – also a spread product in high school, where his quarterback was fellow NU recruit Trevor Siemian – is another player who could provide some more big plays. With a 4.5 40, he, like Jones, should have the type of big-play ability that NU's current receivers – productive as they are – don't have.

Now, it's no sure thing that Lawrence and Jones will play right away. There are some receivers already in Evanston, like juniors Carl Fisher and Lee Coleman, sophomore Charles Brown and redshirt freshman Martin Bayless.

Fisher, a former two-star recruit, had offers from Kansas, Utah and Wisconsin, and Brown, also a two-star recruit, had offers from Stanford, Boston College, Illinois and others. So they're not slouches either, even if they've yet to produce much at NU just yet. (This season, Fisher and Coleman had zero catches, and Brown had eight for 64 yards.)

It's a testament to the work ethic and attitude of Brewer and Markshausen that the duo accomplished so much. And it is no guarantee that Jones or Lawrence will be able to replicate their kind of production – and a near-certainty that they won't be able to next season as freshmen. If, that is, they play as freshmen. Let's not forget that Fisher, Brown, Coleman and Bayless all sat their freshmen seasons.

Still, in no recent year has a pair – or, should Hill decide to join, a trio – of receivers come to Evanston with this much potential.

If nothing else, there should be more big plays in the years to come. The graduation of Markshausen, Brewer and Stewart will open doors for the incoming troop of receivers, a group that figures to have a big impact with some big plays.


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