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Football: With Carr gone, Wildcats finding new receiver leaders

Macan+Wilson+fights+for+a+ball.+The+rising+senior+has+taken+on+a+new+leadership+role+among+wide+receivers+this+spring.
Macan Wilson fights for a ball. The rising senior has taken on a new leadership role among wide receivers this spring.

Macan Wilson fights for a ball. The rising senior has taken on a new leadership role among wide receivers this spring.

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Macan Wilson fights for a ball. The rising senior has taken on a new leadership role among wide receivers this spring.

Ben Pope, Assistant Sports Editor

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Football


Watching class after class of players mature during their four years at Northwestern, coach Pat Fitzgerald said, is one of the most rewarding parts of the coaching job.

But rising senior receiver Macan Wilson, who is approaching his fifth season under Fitzgerald’s tutelage since redshirting in 2013, hasn’t just matured — he’s transformed.

“You go from a guy that was kind of finding his way to a guy that now … is poised, he’s got confidence, he’s got a great work ethic,” Fitzgerald said of Wilson. “You grow up (in) this whole process of college, and for Macan, that’s what I’ve seen. It’s been fun to watch and (I’m) really, really proud of him.”

The departures of record-setter Austin Carr and fifth-year veteran Andrew Scanlan have forced Wilson and the rest of the Wildcats’ diverse but star-lacking receiving group to redefine itself this offseason.

When Wilson looked around the room at the start of spring practices and realized he and Solomon Vault were the only rising receiver seniors in the room, he actively decided to take yet another step forward in his maturation into a leader.

“I’ve been trying to be more vocal,” Wilson said. “In the past, and in high school … I’ve been more of a lead-by-example guy myself. But now as the oldest guy in the room, I’m trying to be more vocal, trying to be more of an outspoken leader.”

Carr — the Big Ten receiver of the year — and Scanlan together accounted for 58 percent of the receptions, 61 percent of the yards and 12 of the 17 touchdowns generated by the receiving unit last season. Their collective absence has left a massive hole in the offense, which has just begun to explore how its 2017 depth chart will crystallize.

“Are (their) roles clearly defined? Absolutely not,” Fitzgerald said.

The one returning starter is rising junior Flynn Nagel, who was second on the team with 447 yards last season but is now preparing to step into the slot receiver role previously held by Carr, who had nearly triple that amount. Nagel is also likely to remain the primary punt returner, Fitzgerald said.

“Punt return is something I’ve done my whole life, so it’s kind of natural for me,” Nagel said. “Stepping up into a bigger receiver role — that’s one I’m more worried about, more focusing on.”

The biggest adjustment hasn’t been handling a larger burden in the passing game, Nagel said, but learning the other nuances of the slot position. He said he spent the spring learning how to block linebackers and blitz safeties, which is different than blocking cornerbacks on the outside.

The wide receiver slots, meanwhile, remain fairly wide open. Vault, who caught 15 balls last season after moving over from running back, will likely see significant playing time outside, while the likes of rising sophomores Ben Skowronek and Charlie Fessler — who each saw the field only sparingly last fall — will compete for starting roles, too.

But the strength of the Cats’ receiving corps is quickly becoming the slot. There, Fitzgerald is hoping Nagel’s expected stardom will be complemented by Wilson, who regularly watches film with his neighbor, to-be junior quarterback Clayton Thorson.

“He definitely has stepped into a big leadership role,” Thorson said of Wilson. “He’s played a lot of minutes (this spring) and caught a lot of passes, and he’s doing really well.”

This latest step in Wilson’s growth could potentially give the Cats a second go-to receiver next fall, preventing defenses from keying in too closely on Nagel and helping to diversify a passing attack that, while productive last year, was rather one-dimensional.

“It’s a different group of leaders in the room now, but we also have a lot more guys with some playing experience than last year,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a group that’s going to give Clayton a lot more options in the past.”

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