2016 Football Preview: Receivers look for impact player after loss of Vitale

2016 Football Preview: Receivers look for impact player after loss of Vitale
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

The Wildcats’ receiving corps has lost a vital component.

Former superback Dan Vitale graduated in the spring and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving a gap in the passcatchers’ lineup that will be difficult to fill. Northwestern’s receivers struggled last year, ranking 115th in receptions and 120th in receiving yards in the FBS, making his loss that much more crucial. Vitale led the team by comfortable margins in both those categories last season.

With Vitale out of the picture, senior Austin Carr, who had the second most receiving yards last season and the highest average yards per reception, is pretty much guaranteed the top spot on the depth chart. Carr started in four games last season and saw playing time in nearly every contest. He also has had time to develop a strong rapport with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, which will squarely position him as the leader of the receiving pack this fall.

The ensemble cast, however, proves a bit trickier to trace, especially with the graduation of former starting receivers Christian Jones and Miles Shuler.

It seems likely that junior Garrett Dickerson will find a home at superback, a position devised by NU coaching that combines the roles of a fullback and tight end into one all-purpose offensive powerhouse. Dickerson is largely untested on the field, although he appeared in flashes in nearly every game last season and caught at least one pass in nine of those games. Senior Andrew Scanlan, who appeared in nine games last season, also seems a likely contender for one of the three starting wide receiver slots.

In February, Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced some position changes that brought in juniors Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard, and redshirt-freshman Steven Reese, at the wide receiver position in attempt to shore up depth.

Vault, formerly a running back, has had some experience with Cats passing plays and could prove an interesting asset. His speed earned him two touchdowns on kickoff returns last season — the most return touchdowns any NU player has had in a single season. His three career touchdown returns also make him the all-time program leader in the category. Considering the talent he’s already displayed, and that Vault saw playing time at the wide receiver position during the Outback Bowl, it seems likely Vault will be tapped to start this fall. He’ll fit in well out of the slot as the Z-receiver as a speedy and evasive route-runner.

McShepard and Reese, formerly defensive players, face a steeper learning curve and are unlikely to make much of an impact, at least immediately, on the offense.

Without Vitale, and to a lesser extent Jones and Shuler, the Cats’ receiving corps is pretty thin. Look to Carr for reliability and a glimmer of receivers’ past, and watch Vault for an explosive play or two, but generally, Wildcats fans should expect to hear a lot of “Justin Jackson the ball carrier!” this fall.

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