Football: Young receivers stand out with big-play ability, consistency


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Sophomore receiver Kyric McGowan jogs into the end zone after a long catch and run last week against Michigan State. McGowan and fellow speedster JJ Jefferson have emerged as field-stretching receivers for the Wildcats.

Cole Paxton, Gameday Editor


Kyric McGowan flies past defenses by translating his film study to gameday schemes. JJ Jefferson sneaks past opposing players, getting just the necessary separation.

Northwestern’s young receivers make their marks in different ways, but they have two things in common. First, they have come alive of late, providing the Wildcats with more options on the outside.

The second similarity?

“Speed,” receivers coach Dennis Springer said, chuckling. “They can run. … (They’re) able to change directions, making good enough breaks to create separation on the field in Big Ten football.”

That was on particular display in Saturday’s 29-19 victory at Michigan State. McGowan put Northwestern on the board with a 77-yard touchdown reception — the longest completion of Thorson’s career — and Jefferson increased the Cats’ lead to 14-3 with a 34-yard score of his own.

It was the first career touchdown for each player. The scores were well-timed, coming on a day in which NU rushed for just eight yards and needed every outside weapon it could get.

Still, the performances didn’t come from nowhere. McGowan nabbed a 43-yard catch against Akron and sits fourth on the team in receiving yards despite tallying just four catches; the unassuming sophomore has also established himself as the Cats’ primary kick returner, where he averages better than 23 yards per return.

“(Kick return) is just the coaches wanting to get the ball in my hands more,” McGowan said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Those numbers represent a significant uptick for the Georgia native, who tallied just 51 yards as a freshman. But McGowan didn’t make any profound changes in the offseason, just increasing his time spent in the film and weight rooms. Springer credited that work off the field, citing McGowan’s ability to execute plays to perfection.

That has led to increased time on the field, both in the offense and on special teams, where he “starts” on four units.

“(He’s) a young player that played last year but wasn’t a starter, and is still learning and growing in his craft, but I’ve been very impressed,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought he played really well (on Saturday).”

Jefferson, meanwhile, is making an immediate impact in his first year in Evanston. The diminutive 5-foot-10, 167-pound freshman snared a 36-yard grab that set up a touchdown against Michigan before converting his first score a week later.

Two of his three receptions have gone for more than 30 yards, signaling his ability to get away from defenders.

“Earlier in the game he was getting open, and I think Clayton came to the realization that he’s going to win his 1-on-1 matchup,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s very encouraging, for a young player, to see him step up like that.”

NU’s young speedsters are far from the every-down, short-yardage specialists like senior Flynn Nagel and junior Bennett Skowronek. However, their ability to win individual battles against defensive backs in the Big Ten — where, Springer pointed out, most teams offer a steady diet of man-to-man coverage — should, in theory, allow the receivers to continue the “production on Saturday afternoon” upon which their position coach harps.

Their teammates have taken notice of that ability.

“They make big plays. It’s great to have them on the field because that keeps the defense humble,” junior superback Cameron Green said. “Being able to have some guys who will beat you deep or run right by you makes sure that a defense has to back up a little bit, which in the long-term can help us run the ball more, even shorter passes or anything like that. Having them is a blessing.”

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