This is the latest in our This Year vs. Last Year series. Essentially, it’s just like it sounds — we’ll break down how each unit looks this year compared to last year. Next up is the running backs.
Key Losses: None
Returning Starters: Venric Mark
Other Key Returners: Mike Trumpy, Malin Jones, Stephen Buckley
Why 2012 Was Better: When you look just at Northwestern's running backs, it's tough to find any argument that 2012 was better, since everyone returns and a number of talented young players enter the mix to provide depth. If we based this section just off that personnel, it would be no contest. However, for argument's sake, when you look at the entire running game as a whole, there's a chance the 2012 version could be better.
The 2012 offensive line took some time to come together, but it was very well-equipped for run blocking and opened up huge holes for Venric Mark. The Wildcats were run-based last year, not because they couldn't throw, but because the team as a whole was so tailored to running the ball. The offensive line was quick and athletic, and they were excellent in zone blocking, which allowed the zone read to excel. Every offensive line is different, and while this one figures to be more talented than last year's, it's also low on experience, so there's potential for the running game to suffer, at least in the early going.
Why 2013 Will Be Better: If everyone stays healthy — always a big "if" at running back — this unit has the potential to be the best group of running backs in the Big Ten this year. Venric Mark is the Big Ten's leading returning rusher, and he and Kain Colter have already built an outstanding tandem in the zone read and the option. He figures to be a 1,000-yard rusher again, even though he'll be splitting carries with Colter, and potentially with a talented group of backups.
That group includes senior Mike Trumpy, who was overshadowed by Mark but was still a force for NU in the short-yardage game. He'll be the No. 2 again, but it's certainly nice for the Wildcats to have such an experienced backup. Behind Trumpy are Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley, who both showed off their tremendous talent in spring ball this year. Buckley is a small, quick, Mark-type back who will also play some slot receiver. Jones is considered a "big" running back like Trumpy, but he's also very quick and versatile. Neither of those two are expected to play a lot this year, but they'll get some experience as NU's running back tandem of the (very near) future.
This Year or Last Year: This Year
Despite the improvement of the passing game at the end of last season and the projected improvement of the wide receivers this year, NU is still going to be a run-based offense in 2013, and if the Wildcats stay healthy (read: if Venric Mark stays healthy), they should be better than they were last year. There's just too much talent and experience for them not to be better. Colter and Mark have continued to get better at the zone read and the option as they've played together more, and now they'll have the chemistry of working together for an entire season. And when you add in the group of very capable backups, this looks like one of the best groups of running backs in the Big Ten.