Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.
The breakneck pace of Northwestern’s early 2014 recruiting efforts has slowed to a relative trickle in recent weeks, and after learning of defensive end Noah Westerfield’s early July-commitment, it appears the Wildcats could remain stuck on 13 recruits (with two more scholarships left to fill) heading into the fall. Even before prospects sign their national letters of intent, we tend to project ahead and think about how these players can impact their teams once they arrive on campus. Today, I’m taking the thought process to my laptop word processor of choice, only I’m getting a little more specific than most post-commitment player hypotheticals.
I’m looking at which 2014 Northwestern recruit, given the roster’s current and strengths and weaknesses, has the best chance to positively impact the Wildcats right away. This requires me to project ahead one full season, attempt to predict how players will fare at individual positions during that span, which 2013 players will unexpectedly step up and other variables that can’t be accounted for over the course of a calendar year. There is no right answer. There is only inference and speculation, which – in the most news-bereft trough of college football offseason – is more interesting than nothing at all.
There are a few positions that could use a jolt of young talent one year from now. Trevor Siemian will be the only quarterback with extensive game experience provided Matt Alviti or Zack Oliver doesn’t play major snaps this season. The defensive tackle position lacks proven depth. Damien Proby’s departure could leave a hole at linebacker. Other positions could open up and solidify through various developments (injury, unexpected decline, breakout seasons) over the next 12 months, but arguably the most convincing choice of all is running back.
The most obvious reason recommending one of Northwestern’s two running back commitments can’t be misunderstood: Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson are, you know, good. That is, at the very least, what game film and most scouts and national rankings tell us, and until practice and game performances say otherwise, it’s hard to find fault with the general opinion on both players’ potential at the next level. Both Anderson and Jackson were recruited by high-level BCS programs around the country. They chose Northwestern for very specific reasons, chief among them the idea that they’d be able to compete for playing time right away.
One year from now, when Anderson and Jackson arrive on campus, they will have that opportunity. Anderson and Jackson might well be able to earn carries and playing time under any circumstance, but the biggest benefit of 2014, as far as incoming running backs are concerned, is the departure of Northwestern’s two primary running backs, Mike Trumpy and Venric Mark. Again, like any current depth chart ordering, that designation change over the course of the upcoming season, with Jones building off his impressive spring to challenge Trumpy for his current No. 2 spot, but even if Jones surpasses Trumpy on the depth chart or assumes a larger role than we can rationally predict from the information we know at this point in the offseason, the basic point that Northwestern will be without two heavily contributing senior backs one year from now makes a true freshman back’s prospective entry process a whole lot easier than it otherwise might be.
If Anderson and Jackson play well enough, in short, there will be a spot on the depth chart ready to welcome one (but probably not both) of them in.
This analysis neglects to address the two 2013 backs (Warren Long, Xavier Menifield) entering the mix this season, and by the time we get around to recapping 2013 and previewing 2014, the combination of Jones, Stephen Buckley (who could take on something closer to receiver/utility-type responsibilities somewhere down the road), Trayvon Green, Long and Menifield may offer quite enough depth and variety at the running back spot to block either of the true freshmen from playing right away.
Again, this is merely one of many positions that could offer an opening – and one year from now, the picture could look entirely different, and the answer to this question could be so obvious so as to make this debate seem trivial in hindsight; in college football time, calendar years are epoch-length stretches of change and uncertainty – and Jackson and Anderson, based off their recruiting reputations, are two players that look ready to take advantage. If a spot opens up, one of them should be able to earn it, and the running back position could have a new youthful flavor one year from now.