Over the next few months, with no bowl game to talk or write about, we’ll pose a series of forward-looking questions regarding Northwestern’s 2014 season. Some of them will be very specific, some of them won’t. At best, our “offseason questions” feature will be a fun way to pass the time before spring football starts; At worst, fans will be so disappointed with Northwestern’s 2013 season, they won’t pay attention to anything even remotely connected to Wildcats football until August. Email us at email@example.com or tweet at @insidenu if you have any queries you’d like us to address.
What will Northwestern's running back depth chart look like next season?
Reaction to the news that senior running back Venric Mark – who was limited to just three games in 2013 due to hamstring and ankle injuries – was likely to seek a medical redshirt that would allow him to play next season was fairly unanimous. Northwestern’s running backs are going to be good in 2014, was the thought, and that’s probably true – if they all stay healthy. We won’t know, officially, what the depth chart looks like until the week before Northwestern’s season-opener against Cal, but it’s not too early to speculate about what it could look like.
If Mark is healthy, he will be Northwestern’s number one running back. In 2012, he rushed for 1,366 yards on 6.0 yards per carry and was one of the most dynamic and versatile players in the Big Ten. The presence of Kain Colter, who will graduate this offseason, no doubt aided Mark’s ability to deliver big plays, but even if he doesn’t match the ridiculous numbers he put up two seasons ago, Mark is probably the most talented offensive player Northwestern has. He should get most of the carries.
How the rest of the rotation will shake out is not quite as easy to decipher. Rising sophomore Stephen Buckley showed promise when he was given a starter’s workload in the Wildcats’ loss to Iowa in October. Against the Hawkeyes, who rank 19th nationally in yards allowed per rushing attempt, Buckley carried 17 times for 99 yards (5.8 ypc). Buckley’s season ended a week later, when he suffered a gruesome knee injury against Nebraska. Buckley had surgery in early November to repair multiple torn ligaments and a dislocation, but should he fully recovered by preseason camp.
The promise Buckley showed in the small window he was asked to carry Northwestern’s rushing load presents a convincing argument for his placement on the two-deep in 2014. If Buckley’s injury hampers his effectiveness, this discussion changes. He could get passed on the depth chart by other options. Or perhaps, given the skill sets of other players at the position, Northwestern will elect to use Buckley as a catch-all, backfield weapon type, someone who takes hand-offs and catches passes. But until there’s evidence that he’s not as explosive or fast as he was before his injury – or that the Wildcats don’t plan to use him as a conventional running back – Buckley should be considered one of the top candidates to back up Mark.
Another is Treyvon Green, who led the Wildcats in rushing last season (736 yards). Green had a few excellent games – Cal (129 yards, 2 TD), Western Michigan (158, 2), Nebraska (149, 3) – but his production tailed off down the stretch (104 yards combined over the last three games). Green should have a role in Northwestern’s rushing attack, but he’ll probably get fewer carries than he did in 2013, if only because Mark will be back.
The Wildcats have other, younger players who will also likely be involved in their ground attack. Warren Long looked good in spots last season and has a chance, over spring practice and preseason camp, to earn more playing time. There are also two true freshmen, Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson, who will vie for playing time. Mark’s likely return makes it unlikely both of them will play, but if only one does, it will probably be Jackson.
As a senior at Glenbard North High School this season, Jackson, a 5-11, 180-pound four-star recruit ranked fourth nationally among “all-purpose backs” by 247Sports, rushed for 3,171 yards and 38 touchdowns. Among Northwestern's 2014 class members, he ranks behind only cornerback Parrker Westphal on 247’s composite player rankings. He looks really good. If he plays this season, he should be a big part of Northwestern’s running game. If he’s not – if he’s contributing mostly on special teams and working with the offense only in garbage time – why would coach Pat Fitzgerald elect to burn his redshirt?
In the end, I envision at least three backs (Buckley, Green and Mark) having big rushing workloads, with Mark getting the most carries. Long and Jackson (or even Anderson) could work their way into the rotation. Maybe Jackson will impress coaches so much in preseason camp, he’ll jump Green and Buckley. Perhaps he won’t play at all. That’s the hard part about this type of forward-looking analysis: until we watch these players compete against one another in practice, it’s hard to know who will end up where on the depth chart.
However it all comes together, at least one thing seems obvious: Northwestern will be deep at running back in 2014. The composition of that depth will be determined in spring practice and the preseason. Until then, all we can do is wait and speculate, and try to make educated guesses with limited information. Hence, this post.