Football: Confidence propels Flynn Nagel to new heights


Daily file photo by Leeks Lim

Flynn Nagel returns a punt. The sophomore wide receiver is second on the team with 10 receptions and 125 receiving yards.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Gameday Editor


Most people would be terrified by 10 football players hurtling toward them with the sole goal of hitting as hard as they can. But Flynn Nagel sees punt returns differently.

“Right after you catch the ball, looking down and seeing the guys in front of you on the other team and your guys blocking them,” the sophomore receiver said, “I think that’s the best part.”

Nagel has been a key cog in Northwestern’s resurgent passing attack this season, standing second on the team in both receptions and yards, with 10 and 125 respectively. More importantly, Nagel has awakened the Wildcats’ dormant punt return game.

For Nagel, playing a hand in NU’s receiver revolution started with a personal change. The most improved part of his game from a year ago, he says, isn’t his hands or route running — it’s his confidence.

“I may have lost (confidence) a little bit just because transitioning from high school to college was a little bit of a transition,” Nagel said. “Going into this year I have more confidence in myself and just the relationship I’ve built with my teammates, (sophomore quarterback) Clayton (Thorson), guys on the offense.”

Not that Nagel ever really seemed to be short of self-assurance. He was the final member of the Cats’ class of 2015, flipping his commitment from Duke just days before the signing deadline because “when I woke up in the morning it felt right,” he told The Daily at the time. Nagel also likened himself to Julian Edelman, the 5-foot-10 New England Patriots receiver known for his punt return acumen and fearlessness in the middle of the field.

Nagel himself took a big hit over the middle last season against the Blue Devils and was ultimately knocked out for the year two games later against Minnesota, an experience he says humbled him.

“Now I realize that football may not last forever,” Nagel said. “Getting hurt was a big piece of adversity for me that I’ve really never faced. Throughout high school I’ve really never gotten hurt. This was definitely something I thought I could grow from, and I think I did.”

Back on the field and looking as healthy as ever, Nagel is now listed as a starter at wide receiver but makes his biggest impact when he drops back deep to field a punt. He ran back five punts this season against Duke, a high-water mark in a single game for the program over at least the last nine years, and is on pace to more than double NU’s punt return total from last season.

And whether it’s Nagel rubbing off on his teammates or some other external factor, the same confident attitude is cropping up all over the wide receiving corps. Senior Andrew Scanlan described an “attitude of improvement” as a motivating factor for everybody in the receiver’s room, Nagel included.

“Guys are really stepping up and guys are really trying hard to provide for the team in every way, shape or form,” Scanlan said. “That includes special teams.”

Senior Austin Carr, leading the team with 26 receptions for 392 yards, has the same positive outlook and said last week after the Nebraska game that this group of receivers is among the most confident he’s ever seen.

“It rivals my freshman year with Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones, those guys,” he said. “We have a confidence that’s very similar to that.”

Nagel isn’t responsible for all of the increased production from the passing or punt return games, but he’s a good exemplar of it. Just like he does on punt returns, Nagel confidently charges ahead.

Ben Pope contributed reporting.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote