Aug. 31, 2000
There will be times this evening when Northwestern quarterback Zak Kustok looks out from behind the offensive line and sees the prototypical wide receiver lining up for him.
He will see a wide receiver who has the speed to get under the deep ball.
He will see a wide receiver with the ability to turn a 3-yard swing pass into a 70-yard touchdown.
He will see a receiver who has hands that you would swear were covered by stickum instead of skin.
And he will see a receiver who boasts a body that coaches would consider representative of a big-time Division 1 college football player.
The catch -- pun intended, of course -- is that the sum of this receiver is broken down into separate parts. The prototypical wide receiver is, in fact, four different people.
"We have a lot of people who bring different things to the table," said junior Sam Simmons.
That would be an understatement.
Simmons, of course, fulfills the role of the play-breaker. Fifth-year senior Teddy Johnson takes on the role of the flyer, while sophomore Jon Schweighardt is the sure-handed glue guy. As for the body, take your pick -- redshirt freshman Kunle Patrick is listed at 6-0, 203 pounds, while freshman Roger Jordan is listed at 6-3, 205 pounds.
So when four of those guys line up on, say, a second or third down, how do you defend them? Do you try to stop the deep ball, or do you keep an eye on the short ball that leads to a first down and keeps the ball in Northwestern's possession?
That is the beauty of the Wildcat receiving corps in 2000. It truly is a multiple-headed monster.
"With our offense, it is going to be interesting to see how teams defend our new passing attack," said receivers coach Howard Feggins. "The big thing, though, is if our guys can make the plays. If one guy gets thrown off his route, the timing will be gone. But I think we have six guys who will help us this fall."
Which makes it all the more puzzling that NU's wide receivers are not being well-received by the preseason pundits. One publication even went so far as to rank them dead last in the Big Ten.
When asked about it, Johnson just smiles and says, "I can't wait to prove everybody wrong."
Simmons is more philosophical.
"When you produce like we did last year, you are going to have people say you don't have what it takes," he said.
The numbers would certainly back up that sentiment. Johnson led the entire team last year with 23 catches for 354 yards -- not exactly the type of statistics that will cause opposing coaches to lose sleep. Only two other players, Simmons and graduate Jay Tant, surpassed the 300-yard mark for the season.
The thing those so-called experts forget, though, is that this unit was beaten up last year. Simmons and Schweighardt were lost for the season in Week 7 against Iowa, while Johnson endured lingering effects from a mid-season concussion and ended up playing in eight of the Wildcats' 11 games.
That left Derrick Thompson -- who had nary a reception in his first three years at NU -- as the primary target in the final three games. He ended the year with 22 catches, second on the team. Depleted? You bet.
"The hardest part of last year was that we lost our go-to guys," said Feggins. "A Schweighardt or a Simmons, they make a difference in a third-and-10 or third-and-five situation. You get the ball to them and they are going to make the play. That's what we missed."
Take into account also that the `Cats endured a quarterback change in midstream, and it's no wonder the offense stumbled regularly in 1999.
"This is the first time in my career that we know who the quarterback is going to be," said Johnson, referring to Kustok. "That will make things a lot different. We have taken a lot of reps in practice since last year, and we know what to expect from each other."
So, to hear the upperclassmen talk, familiarity will breed success. But what about the freshmen?
Take a look at the roster -- of the experienced quartet, none measure six feet. Now look at the newcomers.
Patrick and Jordan you know about. Two other newcomers, El Da'Sheon Nix and Frank Bass, stand 6-3. Another redshirt freshman, Ronnie Foster, is 6-2.
Just who will be looking up to whom this fall?
"If you're small -- and I'm small -- you have to be very fast to be a wide receiver," said Feggins. "But if you're tall, speed is not as much of an issue. Rather, it's a bonus. If you're tall, I'll take you."
Feggins brings an interesting perspective to the wide receiving position. After all, he achieved his success at North Carolina and later in the pros on the other side of the ball, shutting receivers down as a defensive back. It allows him to offer a unique perspective to his troops.
"It is great for me," he said. "I'm still a defensive back at heart, and what I do as a coach is tell these guys, `hey, they are out there trying to break your ribs...why not do the same to them as a receiver?'
"One of the biggest mistakes a receiver can do is try to rush his route trying to beat a defender," he continued. "I try to tell these guys that the key is to make a few moves and go from there. Be patient."
After almost two years with Feggins, the players are comfortable with his approach.
"He's a great coach," said Johnson. "He gives us a lot of confidence and is very helpful with his advice."
After suffering through last year's tribulations, Feggins has two more pieces of advice.
Don't get injured.
And be ready in case someone else does.
"The thing I have told the freshmen from day one is be ready," he said toward the end of Camp Kenosha, where the team trained from August 10-22. "All they need to do is look at last year -- we lost three guys. Put yourself in a position to be ready if someone goes down this year."
Simmons hopes it does not come to that.
"The goal this year is to be healthy," he said. "We want to play fast, get out there every down and give it all we got. But we can't be timid."
Last year's unfulfilling campaign has the receivers chomping at the bit for 2000. Keep that in mind tonight as you see more and more wideouts flooding the line.
The Wildcats are excited about the possibilities of a multiple-headed monster.
Johnson simply says, "we have a lot of great receivers."
"We know what we have," said Simmons. "We've put in an offense that really clicks, it keeps us moving. Defenses are going to be lost.
"We are going to surprise a lot of people."