Wildcats offense aims to make waves again

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:30
AM ET
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two years ago, the Big Ten blog ranked Northwestern's wide receivers and tight ends as the league's best. The Wildcats proceeded to finish 106th and 69th in passing the next two seasons.

Whoops.

Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.

[+] EnlargeTony Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Jones is part of a deep and talented group of receivers at Northwestern.
After watching Northwestern's practice Thursday, a case can be made that the receivers and tight ends, while lacking a bona fide superstar, should be among the Big Ten's best this fall. There were familiar faces like Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.

Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally healthy and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.

An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.

"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."

The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.

The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.

"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.

"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."

Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.

But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.

"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."

McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.

Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.

"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."

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