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Time to step up: Northwestern's backup running backs

The discrete components that mix and mash together to form football teams change each and every season. Players graduate. Offensive and defensive philosophies are tweaked. Injuries throw a monkey wrench into your most foolproof schematic plans. Northwestern keeps intact much of the core that won 10 games last season, but there are new roles and responsibilities – adapted specifically to accentuate players’ biggest strengths – littered about this year’s roster. The revisions and alterations made on last season’s team will foist new challenges on the Wildcats’ 2013 season. 

“Time to Step Up” is our humble attempt to capture those challenges in convenient little breakdowns, none of which must conform to any particular unit of a team’s construction. Players, coaches and vaguely defined team attributes are all fair game here. Oh, and one more thing: just because it’s time for, say, a certain player to “step up” doesn’t mean his performance lagged last season. So before you wail and stomp and clench your firsts, read (or at least skim) the entire post. Lazy title glancing defeats the entire purpose. Don’t be that guy.


Over the span of 13 games last season, there was one vitally important thing about Venric Mark’s 1,300-yard season that people lost sight of all too easily: health. With the exception of a few bumps and bruises inducing periodic sideline sitdowns, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark managed to navigate a 13-game gauntlet with about as clean a health record as you could reasonably expect from a smaller back who not only averaged more than 17 carries per game, overcoming violent blows along the way, but also assumed a large share of Northwestern’s kick and punt return obligations.

This was a remarkable development. Even more insane was the fact that – and maybe this was just an observation, but I think most folks made a mental note of this at some point or another – Mark seemed to bounce back from the most violent hits almost completely unphased, as if to almost absorb or brush off or merely ignore whatever pain he felt in the moment. Maybe it wasn’t as obvious on television as it was from the pressbox, but when I think back to last season, one of the most salient memories from Mark’s breakout campaign is the way he recovered from a number of hits that, at the moment of impact, otherwise looked capable of causing serious, debilitating, even season-ending injury. His ability to endure – his ability to shrug off being violently ripped to the ground, hop back to his feet and live to play the next down – was arguably the most remarkable thing about his wildly productive season.

Betting on Mark maintaining the same relatively spotless bill of health this season (he suffered a few nicks here and there, and sat out because of them, but nothing close to a severe injury) is a huge risk. Players get injured. Running backs logging more than 225 carries get injured more often. This is an inevitable part of the sport, and it requires an important concession in the way we try to predict Mark’s upcoming season. His workload, in all likelihood, will need to be reduced this season, if only to save him from the wear and tear he’s likely to endure yet again – with the added benefit of keeping him fresher (and healthier) for his special teams duties.

Doing this efficiently will require a few things. First, prudent in-game recognition from coordinator Mick McCall and quite possibly Mark himself, about when to reduce carries, or adjust the gameplan to minimize violent hits, including stretch plays to the outside, a more pass-heavy playbook and other little tricks to keep Mark from taking a beating.

The more important part will come from the players themselves. Northwestern’s backup running backs (Mike Trumpy, Malin Jones, Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley) will need to prove they can be called upon to sustain the running attack in Mark’s absence. No one player will be able to relieve Mark on his own (although Trumpy did a fine job in the second half of the Boston College game last season); it will require a collection of efforts, creative playcalling and an intuitive knowledge of how to utilize each player’s unique set of skills in different situations.

It is impossible to replace what Mark brings to the table on any given down – namely, the ability to break a long run virtually every time he touches the ball. But each of the Wildcats’ reserve backs offers his own unique repertoire of skills, and taken together, those disparate running styles can be lumped together, selectively used to match situational and predicted defensive alignments, and at least temporarily sustain Mark’s production over short bursts of time. If injuries become an issue – and I’m not predicting they will, especially after the Clark Kent-ian steeliness Mark evinced for most of the season – the need for quality reserve rushing work could be a more lasting endeavor.

This is a deep running back corps with a lot of potential – and that’s without considering the two touted 2014 backs, Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson, coming through Evanston next summer. Jones was likewise highly regarded coming out of high school and showed signs of realizing that potential in spring workouts. Buckley is an elusive ballcarrier versatile enough to line up in the slot. Green regressed last season, but offered the promise of a semi-resurgent 2013 with a strong spring. And Trumpy is, I think, one of the more underrated backup running backs in this entire league.

Any four of those backs is capable of logging a few touches here and there, and in all likelihood, all of them will be called upon at some point or another. Their workload could increase if the laws of physics suddenly decide to include Mark – if the vicious hits that would rock other smaller backs out of games start doing the same to Northwestern’s smaller back – and all four will need to be ready if (and for the Wildcats’ sake, hopefully not when) that happens.

This should not be misinterpreted as me predicting injuries. It is preemptively accounting for them by noting the Wildcats’ formidable reserve options on deck. Northwestern is well prepared.