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Saturday's game at Iowa could be a big opportunity for Northwestern RB Stephen Buckley

EVANSTON, Ill. -- He just wanted to get on the field.

That was Stephen Buckley’s goal entering this season. And through seven games, the redshirt freshman has taken the field with a number of different charges: take handoffs, catch passes, return kicks. Buckley has done a little bit of everything.

This Saturday against Iowa, he could be doing a little more of everything.

For the second straight week – and the sixth game out of eight this season – Northwestern will be without star running back Venric Mark, who will sit out with a lower-body injury. Mark’s role is unique and wide-ranging, incorporating running, catching passes and returning kicks. It also involves receiving pitches on option plays, an offensive staple from last season that the Wildcats haven’t been able to use as often in 2013.

It’s the kind of role Buckley can take over for a week. Or longer.

“I hope so, yeah,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said when asked Monday if Buckley could become more involved in Northwestern’s running game while Mark sits out. “He’s doing a nice job.”

At practice Tuesday, Buckley made plays all over the field. Whether bursting upfield on an option run or catching a short pass, it seemed clear he was a focal point of Northwestern’s offense. Whether that means he will see an uptick in playing time this weekend is hard to say, but it should be noted that Buckley, perhaps lost in the overall ugliness of Saturday’s offensive performance, led Northwestern in rushing with 58 yards on nine carries and sparked a first-quarter scoring drive with a 33-yard reception and 11-yard run.

Other than, perhaps, receiver Tony Jones, who finished Saturday with 84 receiving yards on eight receptions (and has quietly emerged as one of the Big Ten’s most productive receivers), Buckley was Northwestern’s best offensive player against Minnesota. If his workload increases, there’s a good chance he could reclaim that title this weekend at Iowa.

“Stephen’s great,” sophomore superback Dan Vitale said Tuesday. “I think he’s a phenomenal threat for us. He’s fast, he’s quick, he can run – I think he’s a huge threat for us.”

Learning Northwestern’s option package has not been difficult for Buckley. He quarterbacked a version of the veer offense, which features zone-read elements, at North Forney High School (Forney, TX), where he rushed for 1,352 yards and 25 touchdowns while throwing for 923 yards and eight scores as a senior, and was recruited to play QB by New Mexico and Air Force. Other schools, including Kansas State and Washington State, wanted him at cornerback or safety.

Northwestern offered Buckley as a running back, and his experience running the veer made him a great fit – at running back, mind you – for the Wildcats' option package.

“It’s definitely helped me understand where Trevor and Kain are coming from, Where they’re thinking the ball is going to go” Buckley said of his experience playing quarterback in the veer offense. “So it just helps selling the fake and also where to put the ball.”

One reporter asked Buckley Monday whether coaches had discussed the possibility of him lining up as an option quarterback. “That topic hasn’t been brought up,” Buckley said. “But I’m willing to do whatever the coaches ask me to do.” Buckley probably won’t be needed at quarterback.

While Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has reiterated Tuesday that quarterback Kain Colter, the Wildcats’ best option to run the option, remains “day-to-day” with an ankle injury, Colter said Tuesday that he plans to play against Iowa. That means the Wildcats, whose offense has been limited while Colter and Mark have sat out parts of this season, could get back to doing what they did so well, so often in 2012 – running the option.

Only with a different runner lined up in the backfield. Northwestern isn’t the same offense without Mark – it’s not as explosive or dangerous – but it can aspire to be something close with Buckley filling his spot. The redshirt freshman does possess some of the skills that make Mark such an electric runner.

“I think they can cut and keep running without losing any speed,” Vitale said of Mark and Buckley. “That’s what makes Venric Great, that’s what makes Stephen great.”

Earlier this spring, Buckley was asked whether he could one day see himself taking over Mark’s role in the lineup.

“If I continue to work hard, hopefully I’ll obtain that [Mark’s] role,” he said.

Buckley could get an audition Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Northwestern, listed as a four-point underdog, will need all the offense it can get against the Hawkeyes’ stingy defense. Even if he doesn’t fill Mark’s role, Buckley can at the very least elevate Northwestern’s scuffling offense with his explosive running ability and versatility.