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2014 Spring Running Back Recap: Quantity and Quality

Returning Starters: Venric Mark, Treyvon Green

Others Returning: Stephen Buckley, Warren Long, Tim Hanrahan, Malin Jones, Xavier Menifield, Mike Panico

Incoming Recruits: Justin Jackson, Auston Anderson

Projected Depth Chart

1.a. Venric Mark

1.b. Treyvon Green

2.a. Stephen Buckley

2.b. Warren Long

Explaining the depth chart

The running back depth chart is as crowded as ever, and it’s also very fluid. Because each player possesses a unique skill set, there’s no way to concretely label a player first or second team – with a few exceptions of course.

Those exceptions are at the top of the depth chart. Venric Mark entered last season as arguably the top running back in the Big Ten, but injuries derailed his season. Now he’s back, and on track to be at 100 percent for summer camp, and thus naturally assumes a place atop the depth chart.

Since Green is a solid option, Mark doesn't need to be an every down back, and NU can reduce wear and tear by playing them both. Last season, in Mark’s stead, Green racked up over 800 total yards and 9 total touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry, and as a senior, he’ll undoubtedly have a big role again this season.

After that, there are question marks. Stephen Buckley is recovering from a serious injury, but he was Northwestern’s top newcomer on offense last year, and should get his share of touches. Warren Long, meanwhile, has looked good in spring practice, but it’s difficult to imagine him supplanting more experienced players on the depth chart.

Stock up: Warren Long

Presented with an opportunity this spring, Long seemingly took advantage. First-team reps became a regular occurrence with Mark and Buckley sidelined, and Long looked solid when he needed to be solid, and at times spectacular when in a position to be spectacular.

Now, Long poses offensive coordinator Mick McCall with the challenge of incorporating the sophomore into an already crowded backfield rotation. Long isn’t really suited to be a pass-catching third down back or a specialist though, so his opportunities might yet be few and far between. However, injuries happen, as Northwestern knows all too well, so sooner or later, he’s likely to get his shot.

Stock down: Malin Jones

When Jones signed a letter of intent to play at Northwestern, many thought he’d be a contributor by at least the 2014 season, if not earlier. But after being suspended late last season, Jones is all but out of the picture.

Uncertainty persists. Is he a superback? Is he a running back? Is he both? Or neither? Nobody, perhaps not even the coaching staff, can answer those questions definitively at the moment. Jones didn’t make much noise during spring practice, and it’d be a surprise to see him leap over Long or Buckley on the depth chart.

Position battle: Buckley vs. Long

It might be a bit of a stretch to call this a position battle, because these players would occupy two different niches in the offense. But it is a battle in that the players’ performances during the summer and early weeks of the season have the potential to drive the offense in two different directions.

Buckley, who came in with the “athlete” designation, is better in space, and has better hands. That’s not to say Long doesn’t have speed, but he’s a more traditional, between-the-tackles back. Playing time here could depend on where McCall goes with the offense… or conversely, perhaps, where McCall goes with the offense could depend on which of these two he feels needs more touches.

Biggest summer question: Health

So there’s depth at running back this year… but on paper there was depth last year, too. That just goes to show that with a few injuries, it can all go horribly wrong.

The biggest summer question, therefore, is not only whether the likes of Mark and Buckley can come in healthy, but also whether they (and others) can remain healthy. Northwestern’s offense could be potent, but before the talk even goes to schemes or play-calling