Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
May 22, 2013

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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The domino of running back commitments Northwestern secured over the past two weeks, a one-week stretch that saw both three-star Auston Anderson and four-star Justin Jackson give their verbal commitments, has allowed us to gloss over a few important things. For one, Northwestern still has a set of very good running backs ready to contribute this season. Venric Mark’s abilities do not need some instructive expository endorsement. Everyone – Big Ten defensive coordinators very much included – knows what he’s capable of in space. Mike Trumpy is a reliably physical complement, durable enough to double as the Wildcats’ No. 1 back for select stretches (see: Boston College, September 2012). Treyvon Green appeared to regain some of the explosiveness he flashed in spurts during his freshman season. Redshirt freshmen Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley were one of the main stories coming out of spring practice, and look ready to contribute from day one.

There’s also the 2013 class, which features 5’10’’, 200-pound, Mark-comparable Xavier Menifield (more on him later this week), well-rounded and under-hyped Warren Long and, the main of today’s musings column, Godwin Igwebuike – who still hasn’t decided whether he will play running back or safety. By this time next summer, Northwestern, even after graduating Mark and Trumpy, will have a crowded backfield to manage. That’s true whether Anderson or Jackson sits out this season or not, but the depth chart is all but guaranteed to get especially clunky after their tentatively assumed redshirt seasons.

In 2014, Northwestern will have a very good, very competitive, running back corps. A player like Igwebuike, based off our conversation a few weeks back, isn’t scared of competition, nor did he say depth chart considerations will influence him one way or another. He views his position decision as an important choice that could have lasting effects on his football career down the road, and unless he and coaches have reached a decision behind closed doors in recent weeks, my understanding of the situation is Igwebuike is completely and utterly torn. He really has no idea whether he intends to try his luck at tailback, in a future RB group featuring Jones, Menifield, Anderson, Jackson, Long and Buckley (who could also split time as a slot receiver) or move into the secondary, where he would presumably form a formidable safety partnership with sophomore Traveon Henry.

This is not an easy decision, and Igwebuike and the coaching staff’s opinions are the only ones that actually matter, but, hey, it’s the offseason, football and basketball are still a few months away, and I happen to find this topic particularly intriguing – maybe one of the five or so most interesting storylines heading into Fall camp. I can only speak from an outsider’s perspective, obviously, but when I look at Igwebuike’s options in light of recent recruiting developments, the most sensible choice, when examined in plain view, is safety.

In a game where getting the most talented players on your football team as many repetitions as humanly possible – and spreading that talent on both sides of the ball in equal measure – is the most effective basic winning strategy, ensuring Anderson, Jackson and Igwebuike are all playing starter’s snaps early in their careers is the most sensible way to go about resolving this situation. By that logic, putting Igwebuike at safety, where after a redshirt season (assumed, but not completely assured) Igwebuike would only need to exhaust one year of eligibility on second-string reps while Ibraheim Campbell plays out his final season, would allow for at least three and at best four (injuries, outplaying Henry in camp, etc.) of starter’s status.

The alternative could provide a similar playing time load – no matter how many carries are allotted to Jackson, Anderson, Jones, Buckley, Long and Menifield, Igwebuike is going to get his touches – but only at the expense of other capable backs. Every carry for Igwebuike would, if you want to get totally economic about it, not only burn a first or second down play, but the opportunity cost of, say, Anderson not hitting that fly-32 stretch or Jackson busting through on jet-18 off-tackle (and that is the last time you’ll ever hear me write a play-call ever again. Promise!).

If Igwebuike plays safety, there is no other player of repute he’d be taking playing time away from – assuming a relative recruiting stasis at the safety position, which is probably the safest assumption to make, because we can’t honestly bank on Northwestern landing a safety recruit better than Igwebuike over the next couple years – that could appreciably limit Northwestern’s ability to put all of its best players on the field at the same time. Igwebuike is the next best safety Northwestern has, and it’s not even close. I readily acknowledge the danger in making such a bold hyperbolic claim without ever seeing Igwebuike suit up amongst his Northwestern peers, the cautious and measured discretion that applies to any unproven prospect, four stars or no, but come on. Seriously? Just watch the tape. Youtube is your friend. Igwebuike is a special talent; anyone with a portable computer and a functioning Parietal lobe can calmly concur.

When you really drill down into Northwestern’s personnel specifics, safety offers the best combination of guaranteed starting playing time and roster flexibility. If Igwebuike is indeed completely undecided on the matter, and he has absolutely no preference whatsoever, the best scenario individually, and the most prudent collectively, would be for Igwebuike to choose to play safety this fall.

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