Austin Carr is to Clayton Thorson what Julian Edelman is to Tom Brady. The dude just gets open and moves the sticks.
The redshirt senior came to Northwestern as a preferred walk-on and currently leads the Big Ten in receptions with 50 — Curtis Samuel and Minnesota’s Drew Wolitarsky are second with 37. Carr also leads the conference with 720 yards receiving and 9 receiving touchdowns — including six straight games with a score. He averages 7 receptions and 102.9 yards per game, and is the key cog to the Wildcat offense, which is improving on a weekly basis.
What separates the quick slot receiver from other receivers in the nation, is his knack to move the chains. Out of his 50 grabs, 36 of them have resulted in a first down. Out of his 16 third down receptions, he has gained first down yardage 15 times and has averaged 17.19 yards per reception on that down. When the sticks read fourth down, he’s converted all six of his receptions for a first down.
Sure, he’s Thorson’s security blanket, but he’s also more than that.
He’s clutch. Six of his nine touchdowns have came on third or fourth down. And all nine of his touchdowns have came when they were losing by 14 points or less or when they were leading by two possessions or less. He’s not padding his stats in games that are over; they’re all meaningful, game-changing scoring plays.
Carr is a savvy, precise route-runner who feasts in the slot. He takes advantage of defensive coordinators who put a linebacker on him, or when there’s a lapse in coverage. The coaches do a great job of play design and always find a way to help him exploit coverage. But it’s Carr who possesses the smarts, talent and route-running to execute the play call.
Trailing Michigan State 17-7 in the second quarter, Carr lined up in the slot. Michigan State decided to blitz their nickleback on 3rd-and-5 from the 9-yardline and cover Carr man-to-man with their strong safety. Poor choice. Carr is too quick for the linebackers and strong safeties of the Big Ten.
Carr is running a simple 10-yard corner pattern and he gains separation with ease. The camera angle does not show it, but he most likely jabbed inside to make the safety pause, and then hit the corner route. He had an easy two steps on the defender.
Thorson drops the ball in the bucket and it’s an easy pitch-and-catch for the Wildcats. Northwestern went on to defeat the Spartans — at Michigan State — 54 (!) to 40.
Against Indiana, once again Carr found himself on the inside slot, matched up one-on-one with a linebacker. When will these defensive coordinators learn to keep a nickel or an elite athlete on him at all times?
Carr recognizes the coverage and the distinct speed advantage that he has on the linebacker. He goes inside the linebacker and then bends his route towards the middle of the field — away from the safety — leaving the linebacker in the dust.
The quarterback leads his receiver and places the ball right in the middle of the three defenders. Carr ran his route inside just enough to keep his distance from the safety and he outran the Hoosiers’ defenders for six.
How Ohio State should play him
What the Buckeyes possess that other teams in the Big Ten do not, is elite speed and athleticism in the secondary at multiple positions. With Carr lining up mainly in the slot, it will be Damon Arnette’s main responsibility to stick with him when they’re in Nickel.
Luckily, the Buckeyes have safety Malik Hooker’s elite range to help Arnette when he is on the field, or they can even use Hooker to cover Carr if they’re in base man-to-man. Hooker has had his lapses in coverage at times, but hopefully he has learned to trust his eyes and stick to his keys, rather than biting on double moves when he’s looking for a pick-six. Carr’s precise route running could leave Hooker susceptible in coverage. Per CFB Film Room, Hooker, Arnette, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore only allowed three completions on 14 targets against the Nittany Lions.
This will be a mighty challenge for Austin Carr and an even bigger test for the Buckeye secondary.