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Northwestern Football Post-Spring Unit Breakdowns: Running Back

Having wrapped up another slate of spring practices, it is time to revisit Northwestern’s position units in painstaking detail as they hit the weight room and finish spring quarter in advance of preseason workouts. We last dove into each position group after the bowl game, and spring practice – spotty and inconclusive as the visual evidence can be in this setting – occasions another thorough inquiry into depth chart happenings and position battles.


Returning Starter: Venric Mark (Sr)

Others Returning: Mike Trumpy (Sr), Malin Jones (RS Fr), Stephen Buckley (RS Fr), Treyvon Green (Jr), Mike Panico (RS Fr) 

Incoming Recruits: Xavier Menifield, Warren Long, Godwin Igwebuike*

(*It is not clear whether Igwebuike will play running back or safety)

Depth Chart Projection:

1. Venric Mark

2. Mike Trumpy

3A. Malin Jones

3B. Stephen Buckley

4. Treyvon Green

Explaining The Depth Chart:

The first spot on this list needs no explanation. Venric Mark was one of the top rushers in the Big Ten statistically, and easily its most thrilling empirically, and but for an NCAA loophole allowing Otto Graham to earn another year of eligibility, Mark will start and own the bulk of carries this season. Right behind him is Mike Trumpy, a senior who represents the hammer to Mark’s decorative carving tool, the rock to Mark’s paper, the SUV to Mark’s flashy sports car. You get the idea. Trumpy was a key asset in third-down situations, and he has done nothing to relinquish that responsibility this offseason.

Two redshirt freshmen enter the mix this season, and both offer completely different skill sets. Jones is a conventional between-the-tackles runner, and quite possibly the Wildcats next “feature” back once Mark graduates. Buckley is a former quarterback with speed to burn, jukes to dazzle and a preternatural understanding of the option read that dates back to his days running the veer offense as a high school quarterback (It’s worth noting: Buckley may also line up at slot receiver). Green had a disappointing season last year after showing promise in 2011, but he looked better and better over the course of spring workouts and could ascend the depth chart come preseason camp.

Stock Up: Malin Jones

This distinction could fall to any of the four names you see above, really, but Saturday’s final practice left a strong impression, and that impression was Jones running and cutting and breaking tackles and making the most of his sizable workload. With offers from Notre Dame, Illinois and Boston College, Jones was one of the most prized recruits of Northwestern’s 2012 class, and he began to show exactly why, and electrifyingly so, this spring.

I don’t foresee Jones surpassing Mark on the depth chart, and short-yardage situations are Trumpy’s forte, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take on more and more carries as the season rolls along. His talents are simply too diverse and sophisticated not to use as a complement to Mark’s unique running style. Besides, with Mark fully expected to resume punt and kick returning duties, it can’t hurt to have a capable back like Jones as an injury-minimizing secondary option.

Stock Down: Treyvon Green 

How does a player improve his performance over the course of spring workouts yet find himself in a worse place, depth-chart wise, than the end of last season? I’m glad you asked. Buckley and Jones bring more to the table – as a pair, and individually – than Green, so even as he worked hard to regain the quickness and power he had in 2011, the competition around him eclipsed his efforts rather seamlessly.

It almost feels as if Green let a golden opportunity slip away last season, to no complete fault of his own. A traumatic training camp injury set him back, and when Mark stepped up, and the option hummed, all the standard off-tackle sets that were once Green’s primary field of operation were either a) casualties to the growing reliance on the option or b) handed to Trumpy. Green can regain some of those carries this season, but he has a steep mountain to climb – Jones and Buckley are making it awfully difficult to think anyone can wrest away their reserve contributions.

Position Battle to Watch: Malin Jones vs. Treyvon Green 

Not to suggest this pairing fits the definition of “position battle,” or to posit that Green and Jones are fighting for any sort of descriptive designation – I’m simply highlighting two players competing for a scarcity of carries. Jones shined in spring workouts, and Green didn’t do anything to hurt his stock individually (as addressed above), but both players remain a notch (or three) below one of the fastest and most electrifying players in the country: Venric Mark.

No player better understands the option than Mark, and no player has the benefit of a year’s experience running the Wildcats’ offensive staple, so the specific divisions of leftover carries could come down to who can more quickly master the nuances of to-pit-or-not-to-pitch decision-making, and all its granular details. Jones is the better back, period, but Green has more experience, which tends to count double in Pat Fitzgerald’s evaluation of players competing at a single position. In the end, I expect Jones to earn more carries over the course of the season.

Biggest Offseason Question: Will This Year Be More like 2011 or 2012?

A largely pass-oriented recent existence was eschewed in favor of a more balanced approach last season. The Wildcats broadened their horizons, dropped their traditional emphasis on the pass and rolled out an option flavor – mixed in with timely bursts of Trevor Siemian’s passing – to form a potent and unpredictable offensive attack. I could give you a bunch of statistics to help you understand last season’s offensive pivot. Here’s the most telling one: after averaging 3.75 yards per carry and finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in 2011, the Wildcats posted a 4.93 average last season, good for fourth among league opponents.

With that statistical quantum leap in mind, it begs the question: where will Northwestern’s running game finish this season? Defensive coordinators will wise up and scheme against the Colter-Mark option, and opposing defenders will make sure not to underestimate just how much a diminutive scatback can accomplish between the tackles. Coordinator Mick McCall will need to make adjustments to counter those adjustments, and with Jones and Buckley at his disposal, Northwestern will have a wealth of new wrinkles to throw at the rest of the Big Ten. How those countervailing forces clash, and how much the rest of the league decides to utilize their respective running attacks will determine the relative standing of the Wildcats’ running attack.

Spring Links

Why running back is Northwestern's most improved unit this spring.

Northwestern will major in the option, with an unchanged offensive philosophy.

Stephen Buckley discusses his experience playing quarterback in highschool and how it's helped him better understand Northwestern's option attack.

Post-Spring Breakdowns So Far

Offensive Line, Defensive Line