NU averaged only 169 passing yards per game – down about 33 percent from the previous season – and only surpassed the 200-yard mark four times. It simply came down to strategy.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall focused on perfecting the run game. With Venric Mark dominating and Kain Colter leading the read option attack, the passing game often seemed unnecessary. The Wildcats dialed up passing plays 38 percent of the time, a fairly low number.
For the most part, it worked. Though the Siemian-Colter debate rages on, the run-oriented attack was an undisputed success. It did, however, slow down their talented receiving corps.
Despite occasional strong outings, there was no primary threat.
"The way you saw us last year is pretty indicative of our talent," Pat Fitzgerald said. "We can spread the ball around to a lot of guys."
Last season, no NU receiver averaged three catches per game. Christian Jones led the group with 415 yards, and this came just one season after Jeremy Ebert reached the thousand-yard mark. The production dropped off, and it was not for a lack of talent. They spread the ball, but the opportunities had diminished.
On Tuesday, in the third spring practice, Northwestern receivers already appeared to be in midseason form. Rashad Lawrence – heading into his final year of eligibility – looked the part of a dominant possession receiver. Christian Jones used his size as an advantage when hauling in passes. On paper, and in practice, NU might have one of the best receiving corps in the conference. In 2012, that showed on game time – but in less noticeable ways.
They blocked with purpose. Especially on outside running plays – which NU often calls – receivers can provide critical help. And more often than not, they did.
Then, they needed to prepare for and adjust to the two-quarterback system. Siemian and Colter each have their unique qualities. Lawrence said that as he helps younger players settle in, he needs to "make sure they understand exactly what the quarterbacks are thinking." He uses the plural. It's a wrinkle.
Last season, they usually converted their chances. They dropped passes at times. Their execution wasn't perfect. But if anything, the low numbers can simply be attributed to the minimal number of opportunities.
Christian Jones sat in a midseason press conference and danced around the issue. The passing game had been struggling, and every single media member waited for Jones to blurt out some negative remark. That never happened. For the entire season, the unit demonstrated its maturity. Wins were all that mattered to them.
Many of these receivers were recruited in the age of Dan Persa, when consistent targets spread across the field were just about guaranteed. That hasn't been the case.
In spite of their obvious and impressive talent, they receive little attention. If the targets come, they're ready. If these don't, then the group will show its collective willingness to move forward, team spirit in mind.
Asked about his role as the short-range quick-hit receiver, Lawrence delivered a suitable response: "That's what I'm called to do right now."
The selfless attitude is not lip service. And it's hard not to appreciate.