By virtue of Justin Jackson's stellar freshman campaign, Northwestern's running game arguably offers the most certainty for the Wildcats this offseason. Nevertheless, questions still remain about the NU rushing attack in 2015.
How will Auston Anderson fit in?
As good as Justin Jackson was as a true freshman, he'll still likely split carries with fellow 2014 recruit Auston Anderson next season. Although Anderson missed the 2014 season with a hip injury, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster out of Plano, Texas has already drawn comparisons to Venric Mark and figures to have an instant impact as a redshirt freshman next fall. Anderson is too explosive to not see the field right away, but Jackson's immediate success as a feature back complicates things a little: How will these two young backs coexist next season?
My best guess is that Northwestern will adopt a two-running back system, like many college and professional teams have in recent years. Jackson and Anderson complement each other well. Both are elusive and dynamic, but Jackson is more physical and Anderson has better breakaway speed. Last season the Wildcats relied rather heavily on Jackson, who averaged nearly 23 carries per contest and tended to tire out late in games. Under a two-back system, both guys would get about 15 touches per game and stay fresh for all 60 minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if the split is more along the lines of 20 carries to 10 in favor of Jackson, especially toward the beginning of the season.
Jackson and Anderson won't be used in the same way because of their different skill sets. Jackson thrives between the tackles, while Anderson will probably see more outside runs, sweeps and screen passes to spread the field and take advantage of his quickness. Because of their different skill sets, it's also possible that Jackson and Anderson will be on the field at the same time (as I explore below).
What role will the option have in next year's offense?
Auston Anderson won't be the only addition to the Northwestern rushing attack in 2015. Whether it's rising redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti or freshman Clayton Thorson, chances are the Cats will start a dual-threat quarterback next season. The question is: Will a more mobile quarterback mean the return of the option?
It's impossible to know for sure, but I assume the option will be a larger part of the offense next year. We saw how much Northwestern struggled to run the spread offense without a mobile quarterback in 2014. I think a mobile quarterback -- assuming he's used properly -- is exactly what this offense needs right now. Having a dual threat under center would really open up the playbook and rejuvenate NU's offense.
While rising senior Zach Oliver could start at quarterback next season, the fact that Pat Fitzgerald keeps targeting more mobile quarterback recruits indicates to me that the coaching staff would rather start a dual threat like Alviti or Thorson. Neither Alviti nor Thorson quite matches the speed of former NU quarterback Kain Colter, but both signal callers are capable of running an option package similar to Colter's. I envision NU running zone read, speed and maybe even some triple options next season.
The zone read has become a mandatory play for all mobile quarterbacks in college. With that said, it is not particularly easy to master. Alviti would be perfect for the zone read, but he was only used on designed runs last year. Even though last season Fitzgerald said that he was confident Alviti could run the entire playbook, the fact that Alviti didn't run the zone read a single time (to my recollection) indicates otherwise. With another offseason under his belt, I expect Alviti to get a better grasp of the zone read. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the read option becomes a more prevalent part of the playbook like it was with Colter at the helm (see below), especially if Alviti gets the nod at quarterback.
Thorson is not quite as fast as Alviti, but the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Illinois native was still ranked as the nation's No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in his class by Rivals. If Thorson is named the starter, I also expect him to run the read option, but I anticipate that he will throw out of it more than Alviti would. The following play isn't necessarily a zone read, but it's an example of how the run/pass threat opens up the middle of the field:
Moreover, it would also make sense for the Wildcats to run the speed option with Anderson as Colter and Mark did successfully in 2012:
I could even see NU running a triple option play like the following, with Jackson running up the middle, Alviti or Thorson running the pitch and Anderson bouncing it to the outside:
Regardless of what direction Fitz decides to go in with the rushing attack next season, with more speed at the quarterback and running back positions, clearly he'll have more options. Pun intended.