Northwestern can sustain passing attack even after Austin Carr departs

Austin Carr may have had the most appropriate name of any offensive player in the B1G this year.

So many times this season, the senior wide receiver was the engine that helped Northwestern’s offense drive down the field. For an offense that stalled far too frequently last season, Carr provided a spark that finally got the Wildcats moving in the right direction this year.

Too cheesy?

Maybe so. But it doesn’t devalue what Carr – a former walk-on turned All-B1G receiver – meant to Northwestern this season.

The senior caught 84 passes for 1,196 yards and 12 TDs, leading the conference in all three categories. He needs just 50 yards and a touchdown to break the school’s record for single-season yardage and touchdown catches, both currently owned by D’Wayne Bates.

But it wasn’t just the numbers that made Carr such an impressive player.

He had become a reliable target for Clayton Thorson and was the best go-to receiver in the B1G. He made plays in big situations – like this catch against Iowa on third down to tie the game in the third quarter:

Carr was, in fact, Thorson’s security blanket on third down. 25 of the receiver’s catches were made on third down this season, 21 of which resulted in first downs. Five went for touchdowns.

And he didn’t just do it against bad teams. Some of his best outings came in Northwestern’s biggest games.

Carr caught eight passes for 158 yards against Ohio State, helping the Wildcats come razor-thin to pulling off a monumental upset in Columbus. A week later, he hauled in a career-high 12 catches for 132 yards and a TD against No. 8 Wisconsin.

Even for some of the conference’s top defenses he was impossible to stop.

He finished the year with 19 more catches than anyone in the B1G, was one of only two receivers to post double-figure touchdown receptions and was the only player to go over the 1,000-yard mark in receiving.

So after a solid year offensively thanks in large part to Carr’s efforts, can Northwestern’s passing attack be as prolific when its leading pass-catcher departs?

There’s no reason to think it can’t.

RELATED: Pro Football Focus: Carr Is Top-Graded WR in 2016

As good as Carr was during his final season in Evanston, the real difference for the Wildcats came under center.

Thorson’s progression from his freshman season to his sophomore campaign was an undoubted boost for Northwestern. His completion percentage improved by nearly eight percent despite throwing 150 more passes. The former four-star recruit threw for 2,968 yards and 21 TDs this year, doubling his yardage production and tripling his touchdown total from his rookie year.

In just one year, the Wildcats climbed from last to fourth in passing offense in the conference.

Carr was on the receiving end of several of those passes. But his rise to stardom was as unpredictable anything that happened in the B1G this year. Coming into the year, he had just 23 catches for 402 yards. He didn’t carry the same expectations as teammate Justin Jackson – who could end his career with the likes of Archie Griffin and Montee Ball as one of the conference’s best all-time running backs.

The receiver’s league-leading and (potentially) record-breaking year was the equivalent of watching a magician pull a rabbit from his hat.

Why can’t that happen again?

Though they were well-behind Carr in terms of production this season, Flynn Nagel, Solomon Vault and Macan Wilson all have the potential to fill that primary role next fall. Combined, the trio caught 71 passes for 844 yards and five TDs.

Nagel might be the most likely to inherit the torch. As just a sophomore, he racked up 421 of those yards and had already made some impressive grabs throughout the season:

The “who” doesn’t necessarily matter so much. It’s important to have guys who can catch the football, but it’s essential to have a guy who can throw catchable passes.

Northwestern has that. And with Thorson tucking another year into his holster, he’s got the tools and the experience to be one of the top gunslingers in the B1G next season, even without his primary target.

Jackson’s return is key, too. Carr’s departure might be even more significant if the Wildcats had to rely solely on the passing game. With the B1G’s second-leading rusher occupying the backfield, the offense has the potential to be one of the most balanced units in the conference next season.

One of those three receivers could emerge as a reliable target like Carr did this season. Or, Northwestern could try to create a more balanced passing attack and distribute the offense more evenly. The Wildcats have several weapons that can be utilized.

Whatever the case, as long as Thorson is throwing the football, the passing attack shouldn’t encounter much difficulty. The Wildcats won’t have much trouble picking up yardage offensively.

Even if there’s no Carr to help drive down the field.

REFERENCES

Photo Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

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