Northwestern will use a running back by committee approach in 2014. That's been the plan all offseason, and with the additions of Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault this fall, the committee has gotten even bigger. It's difficult to tell exactly how playing time will break down right now, but here we'll take a look at what each of the five running backs on the committee brings to the table, and how much they might contribute.
Green will probably get the majority of the carries again this season. In 2013, he led the team with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Green was most successful on first down — 56 percent of his carries, 65 percent of his runs over 10 yards and 50 percent of his runs over 20 yards came on first down. On average, he also rushed over a yard more per attempt on first down than on any other down. Expect Green to get most of the first down carries again this season. Also expect Fitz to call on Green when he needs a couple yards. Last season, Green converted first downs on 60 percent of his third down runs within three yards.
Before suffering a season-ending injury against Nebraska, Buckley was getting about six carries per game. On those carries he rushed for 265 yards, averaged 5.3 yards and scored one touchdown. Like Green, Buckley did most of his damage on first down, averaging 6.69 yards per carry, rushing for six of his seven runs over 10 yards and all three of his runs over 20 yards. Neither Green nor Buckley excelled as a receiver last season, but Buckley is more threatening in space. In the three games he received targets, Buckley averaged over 10 yards per catch and converted three first downs through the air. Green, on the other hand, averaged 7 yards per reception and converted only one first down with more opportunities. The only question with Buckley is how strong he will be after coming back from a dislocated knee.
Long didn't see much action in 2013. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry and rushed for 56 yards and no touchdowns. He converted one first down and had two runs over 10 yards. Long will likely share snaps with the freshmen in a backup role.
Fitz doesn't play freshmen unless he thinks they're ready to contribute. Jackson is. He is a shifty runner who can cut on a dime and make defenders miss. But he is also a powerful runner for his size. Expect him to join Green and Long in a more physical running role and to get more carries as the season progresses.
Vault is another freshman with playmaking ability. He has the speed to break a big play at any moment and has thus drawn comparisons to Venric Mark. Vault also has great hands and even came in as a wide receiver. Expect Vault to do most of his damage as a receiving back on screens and short routes designed to put him in space. Vault, Buckley and Jackson will feature more prominently in passing situations.