MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University junior wide out, offensive captain and 2011 All-GLIAC honorable mention Christian Marble-King thought he and his fellow receivers put together a "great" performance at Findlay last year, especially after Christian Jessie hauled in a 9-yard touchdown pass in double overtime for the win.
Then, Marble-King took a look at film recently in preparation for Thursday's opener at Findlay, and his opinion changed drastically.
"Looking at the film from Findlay last year, we all thought we were great out there," Marble-King said. "We sat down and watched it last week - far from it. We are strides, strides ahead of last year."
Northern Michigan University sophomore wide receiver Julian Gaines catches a pass during preseason drills inside the Superior Dome on Monday, Aug. 20. Gaines is one of three returning receivers who started last season for Northern. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
First-year head coach Chris Ostrowsky was blunt when he described his receivers as "Terribly inconsistent" last season.
While there were game-winning catches early in the season - Week 1 by Julian Gaines at home against Minnesota State-Mankato and Week 2 by Jessie at Findlay - the opposition found ways to shut down the young Wildcat receiving corps midway through the season.
Then Northern's receivers found a way to shut themselves down with a bad case of the drops.
So besides bringing in more talent to push returnees Marble-King, Jessie and Gaines, Ostrowsky hired former University of Michigan and NFL wide receiver Marcus Knight as his wide receivers and recruiting coordinator.
Ostrowsky said Knight has brought more than just experience at the highest levels of football to Northern, but substance that his receiver have gravitated to and embraced.
"You can't minimize the fact that coach Knight is here," Ostrowsky said. "He's done a tremendous job of embracing this offense, embracing me. I think the kids really look up to him. Where he's gone, they want to be. You can't minimize that."
Knight lettered four years at Michigan as a wide receiver and played professionally from 2000-2007 with stops in Oakland (2000-02) and Tampa Bay (2004), as well as NFL Europe and the Arena Football League.
He won a national championship and Rose Bowl with the Wolverines in 1997 before playing in Super Bowl XXXVII with the Oakland Raiders as their starting kick returner.
Knight said he hopes to be more than just a coach to his receivers, but a mentor as well.
So far, players like Marble-King have taken a liking to their new mentor, saying the former Wolverine, Raider and Buccaneer has improved the group, "1,000 percent."
"Best advice he's given us is we are not perfect. Always stay humble because there is always something to fix," said Marble-King, who finished 2011 with a team-high 58 catches for 481 yards and three touchdowns.
"That guy is a warden. It's helping us. We look to the positive and he's done a great job."
Marble-King, at 6-foot-1, 216 pounds, will be joined out wide in 2012 by Jessie and Gaines, while senior Kyle Senn has graduated, Lee Figures takes a redshirt season for a knee injury and Josh McNeil takes a semester off of college.
Jessie, a 5-9, 165-pound junior, led NMU in receiving yards with 554 off of 54 catches and four touchdowns after missing the 2010 season due to injury.
He posted 127 receiving yards on three receptions against Northwood with one catch being a 91-yard dash to the end zone.
"Christian (Jessie) is gifted with speed and smarts," Knight said. "He works hard. He's a very consistent receiver that I've enjoyed working with. I've seen him do nothing but get better each and every day."
Gaines was the big-play threat, gaining 515 yards on 33 catches with four touchdowns. The 6-6, 211-pound third-year sophomore posted a season-high six catches for 116 yards against the eventual NCAA Division II national runners up in Wayne State.
"Hopefully he's learned how to be more confident with himself and that comes with maturity," Knight said. "He's had a year in the system and he's done well. I can see him growing everyday, not only as a football player but as a leader."
While Marble-King, Jessie and Gaines have secured spots as the top three receivers, a battle continues for the fourth and fifth receiver spots in the Wildcats' high-octane offense.
True freshman Sterlin Darling at 6-foot, 180 pounds, out of Miami, Fla., has seen significant time during training camp, as has 5-6, 166-pound redshirt freshman Trey Hipke out of Oconto, Wis., in the slot.
Ostrowsky also pointed to sophomore Kelvin Smarwt, who transferred to NMU from Valparaiso, and true freshman Austin Young out of Escanaba as players who could crack the lineup.
Ostrowsky said ideally, he would like to redshirt Young as he transitions from QB to wide out, but the Eskymo may leave the coaching staff with no choice but to put him on the field, if necessary.
"If we're winning late in the season, and we have an injury or two, Austin is going to play. We're excited about him," Ostrowsky said.
"He has been so consistent, so hard working, that we're going to put him on the bus. We still hope to redshirt him, but I can see Austin fitting in."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.