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Northwestern football season in review: Running back player grades

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These guys shouldered a lot of the offense this year.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. Over the next two weeks, between Monday, Dec. 14 and Christmas, we'll be going position by position and doling out grades to every Northwestern player that was a significant contributor this year. We'll start with the quarterbacks, progress through the offense, move over to the defensive side of the ball, and then finish up with special teams and coaches on Christmas Eve.

After evaluating the quarterbacks yesterday, let's take a look at Northwestern's best offensive skill position group, the running backs:

Justin Jackson - A

298 carries, 1344, yards, 4 touchdowns; 19 catches, 147 yards

What more is there to say about Justin Jackson the ball-carrier? He combines outstanding vision, footwork and patience with just enough explosiveness to rip off big runs. He's not quite the burner to always turn those long runs into touchdowns, but he was fantastic this year, following up a very good freshman campaign with perhaps an even more stellar second year.

The second team All-Big Ten performer was great when Northwestern needed him most. He ran for 134 yards against Stanford, 186 against Penn State, 139 (with a touchdown) against Wisconsin and 172 plus a score against Illinois to take back The Hat. Jackson is absolutely imperative to this offense, and he carried most of the offense for the whole season. But, perhaps his most eye-catching stat was that he finished the year with four straight 100+ yard games. He showed no signs of slowing down despite finishing the year with almost 300 carries.

Warren Long - A

56 carries, 321 yards, 5 touchdowns; 2 catches, 23 yards

Another A for this solid group. Long, who was almost exclusively a short-yardage back last year, showed improved speed (see: 55-yard touchdown versus Duke) and versatility this season while still exhibiting his power near the goal-line, racking up five touchdowns. He stepped up in a major way for the Wildcats, becoming Jackson's primary backup and averaging nearly six yards per carry. He's rarely utilized in the passing game, but he showed vast development throughout his junior campaign. He also made a major impact on kick and punt coverage.

Solomon Vault - B+

55 carries, 159 yards; 8 catches, 76 yards; 23 kick returns, 620 yards (27.0 yards per return), 2 touchdowns

From a pure running back standpoint, Vault wasn't very effective at all, averaging under three yards per carry this year. Where he made his impact was on special teams, with important return touchdowns against Duke and Penn State. He holds the Northwestern school record in career touchdown returns (three) and touchdown returns in a season (two). Vault also showed value as a wide receiver, grabbing a 37-yard pass against Purdue, and that's probably where he is most valuable on the offensive side of the ball.