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One Less Day Til Football Season, Post 2: Northwestern's Running Backs

The official song of the 2010 Northwestern Wildcats is still undecided. I nominate the Turkish Airlines jingle from the World Cup. 


Days left til Football: 53 (13 day posting gap. Not bad for time killing.)

One Less Day Til Football, Post 2: Running Back

Who did it last year: Good question! Last year was NU's first vision of a Tyrell Sutton-free lifestyle, and it wasn't pretty.

At various points in the year last season, Northwestern had four people who you could call NU's No. 1 running back. From this position, regardless of who was starting, NU got heaping mounds of nothingness. Arby Fields - who started only three games, yet was the only running back to play in every single game - led the team in rushing with 302 yards. 302! Right after that is Mike Kafka, with 299 yards, who surely gained more on the ground than any person when you discount all those nasty sacks that count as negative runs.

NU didn't have a single 100-yard rushing performance all season. In fact, they didn't have an 80-yard rushing performance all season. And not necessarily for lack of dedication to one back - there were games in which one running back would get upwards of 15 touches, but most of the time, for naught. The best performance of the year actually came in week 1, when Stephen Simmons carried the ball 18 times for 77 yards against Towson.

That is not good.

As the year came along, NU slowly figured out that they didn't really need to establish a non-Kafka run game in order to win - in the last five games, there was only one time a running back got more than ten carries - Scott Concannon's 15-touch, 59-yard outing against Iowa. 

In summary, NU gave four people opportunities at running back, and none of them stood out. (Actually, I always thought Jeravin Matthews kind of stood out whenever NU put him in the backfield, but he's been moved to cornerback, his third position in two years at NU, so, don't worry about him.)

Who's Got Next: Remember those four guys who were altogether unexceptional last season? Get excited - THEY'RE BACK! It would be pretty surprising to me for any scenario besides running back by committee, so let's run down the options, in order of how likely it is that they get playing time.

Arby Fields: Out of the spring, the sophomore with the exact same body type, shape, and uniform number as Tyrell Sutton is listed as the No. 1 running back, and after leading the team in rushing last year, that's not unsurprising. His running style is somewhere between Speedy Gonzalez and Speedy Claxton, so he's got the tools to succeed - he just needs a little bit of that running back finesse to make stand out. He can be a legit No. 1 starter - I just don't see it yet, especially after he failed to make his presence felt in any game in the second half of the 2009 season. (Notable exception: Illinois, where he had 50 yards and a touchdown, but I didn't remember it.) Fields missed spring ball because he was busy hitting .300 for the baseball team, so, big ups to him. Not sure why he needed his redshirt burned - he was our best, most consistent running back, but didn't provide anything particularly spectacular that I feel someone else couldn't have provided, and he never really was a big factor in any close games.

Jacob Schmidt: Schmidt runs a bit more like a fullback than a halfback, but the coaching staff insists on putting him right next to the quarterback in the spread offense. When he's in the field though, it's rarely for anything fancy - just good ol' Big Ten running up the gut, and he doesn't do a bad job of converting third downs. He had no gains of more than 15 yards in 64 carries, which doesn't make me like him as a running back, but he gets the job done, and has more career punt blocks than fumbles, which is always good. I could really see him in a similar role to what he had this year as a third-down/goal-line back, but I'm a firm believer that in those short-yardage situations, NU shouldn't change up their game plan and should just stick with the spread that got them there. But Schmidt could make a more believable decoy than the 5-foot-7-ish Arby Fields.

Scott Concannon: Quietly had some of the best performances of any NU back. He didn't really figure into NU's plans at all until the Indiana game, when he randomly had 73 yards rushing, including 30 on a fourth-quarter game-winning drive. Then, two weeks later, he had 59 against Iowa. He's got a sneaky running style, when he seems dead-to-rights, he always seems to make the right cut at the right time or break a tackle to pick up an extra yard or two. Then again, he seems dead-to-rights on almost every play, so, that's probably why he seems so good at getting out of those scenarios. However, he never seemed to be NU's No. 1 option at back - he just got a lot of tick because of injuries - and I wouldn't be surprised if that doesn't change, which is sad, because I'm a fan. Also, I had no idea, but he had a concussion last year, which isn't funny at all, although, well, his last name is "Concannon", which sounds like concussion.

Tyris Jones: LOOK. I'm not the one who makes the spring ball depth chart, just the one who read it and was like "oh... Tyris Jones is third? Word." And it was so. Jones is a redshirt sophomore whose only experience thus far has been on special teams, and who was listed at linebacker up until bowl practice, but, considering NU went four-deep at the running back spot last year - five-deep, considering fellow position switchee Jeravin Matthews got a handful of carries, it's not unrealistic to expect him to get some carries. I know nothing about him. (Yes, I was at the spring game, no, I don't remember anything about Tyris Jones.

Stephen Simmons: Jones was third on the depth chart, Stephen Simmons - a senior, who has started games at running back in each of the past two years, who looked... well, solid as a sophomore replacing Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh against Michigan and Illinois - was listed at fourth. I don't know what Simmons ever did wrong to go from a starter to a fifth stringer - he was definitely serviceable in his limited role last year. If I had to put forth an argument, it's that he is arguably Northwestern's only dependable option as a returner, considering he was very good at it last year, and we've seen Andrew Brewer and Brendan Smith graduate, but "special teams specialist" is generally a position reserved for walk-ons and freshmen, not former starting running backs. Either way, Simmons appears to have fallen into that role, and I'm not sure he's truly getting a fair shake, although with the development of four other running backs - plus several freshmen who won't figure into anybody's plans this year - I suppose the group's only senior member might be taking one for the team.

Is all that an improvement?: It is a 100 percent lateral move. I wasn't impressed last year, and my state of unimpression and this group's state of flux is identical to the way it was last time. It might even be a decline, considering I'm less trusty in Dan Persa to be able to ball out without the help of an established run game. I wouldn't be surprised if the onus for creating an effective alternative to our spread passing attack once again falls on the feet of our quarterback, because I really don't trust anybody in this unit.

Are there any tooly, acoustic-guitar playing singer-songwriters bearing the same name as any running backs on this team?: Funny you should ask. Here's Stephen Simmons. 

Sweet lyricism, guitar bro! Normally, I go to the Home Depot when looking for tools, but this Stephen Simmons guy might be all the Black and Decker I need to get me through my toolish needs. 

Who else we got?: Mike Trumpy, a redshirt running back, might contribute since he was supposedly highly-regarded when he entered school simultaneously with Arby Field, but Fields got fast-tracked while Trumpy spent the year on the sidelines. But with a crowded backfield already, don't hold your breath on NU playing their Trumpy card.