Football: Northwestern’s receivers struggling with consistency, injuries


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Riley Lees breaks a tackle. The junior has led Northwestern in receiving yards so far this season.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Web Editor


Somewhat ironically, one of the few good plays Aidan Smith made last Saturday against Iowa might have been the most damaging for Northwestern.

Midway through the first quarter, the junior quarterback and the Wildcats (1-6, 0-5 Big Ten) — trailing just 7-0 at that point — faced a third and four on their own side of the field. Smith stepped up in the pocket and found sophomore receiver JJ Jefferson over the middle for a nine-yard gain and a first down. But as Jefferson tried to spin away from the Hawkeyes’ defense, he went to the ground and rolled over a couple times, clutching his knees.

Shortly afterward, Jefferson was ruled out for the game with a lower body injury and has also been ruled out for this week’s matchup against Indiana.

“Obviously, you feel bad for the young man,” wide receivers coach Dennis Springer said. “He’s put in so much time, so much effort to get to where he is, being productive out there on the field. It’s next guy up. The next person available has to be ready to step in where you lost that player.”

The loss of Jefferson was a big one. The injury came on NU’s second completed pass of the game, and both came to Jefferson, with the other going for 14 yards. Jefferson is second on the team in catches and receiving yards — just one yard behind junior Riley Lees — and has caught the only two touchdown passes the Cats have thrown all season.

NU’s depth at the receiver position has been tested all year. Senior Bennett Skowronek was expected to be the Cats’ top receiver, but he sustained an injury against Michigan State on Sept. 21 and hasn’t returned since. NU struggled to replace his production — despite having played in just three of the Cats’ seven games, Skowronek is still tied for second on the team in receptions with Jefferson and is third in receiving yards.

In the three games Skowronek appeared in, he averaged 47 receiving yards. No other NU receiver is averaging even half that many.

Junior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who caught a season-best four passes for 41 yards against Iowa, said the Cats have to rely on the little depth they have.

“Everybody’s prepared, everybody’s embracing their role,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “It’s on us to take advantage of our opportunities.”

Beyond being thin at receiver, NU has gone through multiple quarterback changes this year. Add that up, and the result is a passing offense that ranks 127th out of 130 FBS teams in yards per game. But the reality behind the numbers is even worse. The three teams with lower passing averages than the Cats — Navy, Army and Georgia Southern — all throw the ball less than 20 percent of the time, compared to 45 percent for NU.

Without an explosive playmaking receiver, the Cats are dead last in the country with just 4.1 yards per pass attempt.

“We had a couple drops on Saturday, so we’ve got to be cleaner there,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had guys that were open, we missed a couple shots. We’ve got to win some one-on-ones. We have to win those situations to help our quarterbacks out.”

NU’s two highest-rated recruits in the current freshman class, Genson Hooper-Price and Bryce Kirtz, are both receivers, but neither has seen the field this year. Kirtz, interestingly, attended Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Ind., the alma mater of sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson.

Springer said the Cats are evaluating the newcomers’ readiness week by week.

“As we go through game plans and look at where we are injury-wise, we’re getting everybody ready to play,” Springer said. “We’re watching them in practice and seeing where they are in their mental preparation as well as physical preparation. When they’re ready to play, they’ll play.”

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