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2014 Spring Running Back Preview: Is it Fall Yet?

The InsideNU spring guide is back as we get set for Northwestern’s spring football practice. Practice started February 26 and runs through the spring game on April 12, with a break for finals and the school’s regularly scheduled spring break. We’ll run through each position unit to let you know what to watch.

Returning starters: Venric Mark (Sr.)/Treyvon Green (Sr.)

Others returning: Stephen Buckley (So.), Warren Long (So.), Xavier Menifield (RS Fr.), Malin Jones (So.)?

Incoming recruitsJustin Jackson, Auston Anderson

Biggest spring question: Is it fall yet?

To be fair, this isn't really a question that we're going to get answered during the spring. However, there isn't much of note that we can learn in the spring given the injuries and the battle for playing time. Venric Mark and Stephen Buckley are both out with injuries, and both of them could have a major impact on the offense.

The fall will be the time when we figure everything out, and while spring is important for younger players to get reps — hello Warren Long — it won't help determine the depth chart this year. So with that in mind, let's look at some of the larger, over-arching questions facing the running backs.

How will Mark fare without Colter? Yes, Mark is a very good back and should be the starter. However, he's not an Ameer Abdullah or even a Melvin Gordon type of back. He can run between the tackles, but he's most effective with a running quarterback on both the read option and the option pitch. NU isn't going to run as much option this year, so what will Mark's role be? Will he be as successful getting around the edge? This isn't to say Mark is going to be bad — I highly doubt he'll regress very much — but it is fair to wonder how his role will be different. We'll have to wait until the fall to see.

What is Stephen Buckley's role? Before dislocating his knee against Nebraska, Stephen Buckley was turning into a very productive running back. He's quick and can spread the field, but when NU needed him to, he turned into an every down back. Will he be as explosive after his surgery? What would a Mark-Buckley backfield look like? That last question is especially intriguing, though it would have been even more interesting while Colter was at quarterback. Again, we should have answers to these questions in the fall.

What about the freshmen? This could be NU's best duo of running back recruits ever. Glenbard North's Justin Jackson has put up absurd high school numbers, while Auston Anderson, a Texas native, chose NU over a number of offers, including Stanford and Texas. Jackson has generated a lot of buzz, but might need to put on weight to be the kind of player NU hopes he'll be. The Wildcats see Anderson as a replacement for Mark, but Mark is still there. Will both of them redshirt? Will one play? It remains to be seen, but that's something to watch this fall.

Position battles

The biggest battle will be for the backup job, though I expect the backup to have a pretty substantial role. However, one of the contestants for that job is Buckley, who can't participate in spring drills. The spring might be most important for Warren Long, who should play more after some brief appearances as a true freshman in 2013. He can work his way into the conversation for the backup role with a solid spring.

Our best guess at the depth chart

1. Venric Mark

2. Treyvon Green/Stephen Buckley

3. Warren Long