Football: New receivers continue to work on transitioning to position


Daily file photo by Jacob Swan

Solomon Vault navigates up the field. The sophomore is one of three Northwestern players transitioning to receiver next season in an effort to boost a thin corps of pass-catchers.

Dan Waldman and Ben Pope


During his redshirt season, then-defensive back Steven Reese became nationally famous for his macarena rendition on the sidelines. Now, the onus rests on Reese to invent a new routine — a touchdown dance.

Reese, who is currently missing Northwestern’s spring practices due to a non-contact injury, is one of three players from last year’s team switching to receiver for the 2016 season. Sophomores Solomon Vault, a former running back, and Marcus McShepard, previously a cornerback, are also changing positions to add more depth and competition out wide.

“They’re going to be important to our success offensively, no question,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said, adding that last season’s receiving production was so inconsistent the coaching staff was “always” talking about it.

Vault already has some experience catching the football, having caught eight passes out of the backfield during the regular season before being shifted to wide receiver for the Outback Bowl, in which he recorded three receptions for 19 yards. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Duke and Penn State.

Vault was recruited to NU as a slot receiver despite playing running back in high school, but after running back Auston Anderson underwent hip surgery during his freshman season, the team needed Vault to switch back to his former position. As a result, he is just now learning the details of the receiver position, but Vault said the mentorship of junior Austin Carr has helped the process go more smoothly.

“He knows the ins and outs of the position — the alignments, the steps — so he’s been helping me,” Vault said of Carr. “I’m still learning, but I think I have a bunch of natural skills — I can catch the ball well (and) run routes.”

Although Reese will not get the same number of offseason reps as Vault and McShepard, he was able to practice at receiver prior to the team’s bowl game. Reese said the wide-open contest for playing time at the position will push everyone to improve.

“It will be real competitive when we all get back and all get healthy,” Reese said. “Tons of competition — good competition, too — which a receiver really needs.”

Along with Reese, McShepard switched sides of the ball due to depth in the secondary, and the sophomore’s attitude with the transition process has been “terrific” so far, Fitzgerald said.

But the new receivers have big shoes to fill.

The Cats graduate this year two of their top three receivers in Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, who combined for 589 yards last season. Last year wasn’t the first year NU had a spotty receiving corps, however — the team hasn’t had a receiver eclipse 1,000 yards since Jeremy Ebert did in 2011.

Assistant coach Dennis Springer, who oversees the team’s wide receivers, started his tenure at NU during Ebert’s prolific season. Following Ebert’s graduation, Springer successfully replaced the standout with Jones.

Now Springer will be faced with a similar challenge.

“It’s happened every single year you play the game, somebody leaves and somebody has to step up and that’s why they’re here,” Springer said. “They came to play Division I football and they’re excited about their opportunities. … It will be interesting to see who steps out and who becomes that guy; hopefully we can have more than one.”

Fitzgerald has made it clear quarterback Clayton Thorson will remain the undisputed starter moving forward after Thorson threw for 1,522 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions and completed passes to 15 different players in 2015. It’s less certain, however, who the redshirt-freshman will be throwing to moving forward.

In 2015, Thorson relied on Vitale as a big target in the middle of the field. But with Vitale gone, Thorson said he still isn’t sure who his new go-to receiver will be, and added that he plans on figuring that out by fall.

Now, going into spring practice as a more confident leader, Thorson said he is pleased with his new receivers’ progress and is expecting them to contribute immediately.

“Some people might think it’s tough, but it’s really not,” Thorson said. “I think we’ve talked so much in the offseason, watched film together and we kind of know on each play each different adjustment. We know what each other is thinking, so that helps a lot even though they didn’t play in the games.”

NU is in the midst of putting its new receivers through positional training, and Fitzgerald said he expects the three to step up immensely next season.

While Vault and McShepard are already learning the ropes of their new position, Reese will first have to recover from his injury before he can transition his dancing from the sidelines to the end zone.

“I’ve got to get back healthy first,” Reese said, “and then we’ll work on that (touchdown dance).”

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