The running backs room inside the Nicolet Football Center, Northwestern's indoor facility, is a place of study. It's where serious business is conducted. It's where running backs coach Matt MacPherson convenes his pupils and prepares them to find holes, to read blitzes, to understand everything that goes on out on a football field. It's a learning space.
On one morning, the backs and MacPherson are gathered there. It's a position meeting, and MacPherson is doing his thing. He's teaching. He's working with a young group--no player in the room this spring is an upperclassman--so as important as it is to drill home technique on the field, he also needs to educate off it.
On this particular morning, he opens up a question to the room. "Tell me about outside zone," he says, referring to a staple of Northwestern's rushing attack. He's presumably looking for a breakdown of the running backs' responsibilities on the play, the intricacies they look for, the holes they try to hit.
Auston Anderson is the first to pipe up. MacPherson is ready to hear nuanced analysis. Outside zone?
"That's where I get outside," Anderson says, without considering it might not be the answer MacPherson is looking for, "and I go to the house."
The whole room bursts out laughing.
Even as Justin Jackson simply recalls the moment on a Tuesday morning after practice, he can't help but laugh. Earlier that morning, coach Pat Fitzgerald had described Anderson as a "dynamic personality." And he did so with a smirk and a knowing look on his face, as if talking to Anderson would be enough to explain. And he was right. When asked about that "dynamic personality," Jackson cracks a smile and only one word that he uses matters: "understatement."
Mention Anderson to anybody who knows him, and a smile comes to their face. They know. They know about the free spirit. They know about the spontaneous humor. They know about the unrelenting jokes. They know about the untamable exuberance.
They know about the guy who, despite battling a hip injury that forced him to miss every single practice of his first preseason and season at Northwestern, can't stop smiling.
Anderson's personality is big. Okay, no it's not. It's huge. It's enormous. But his physique?
"I'm short," he asserts defiantly. "I'm not small." He grins.
Anderson is a unique player. He's unlike anybody else in Northwestern's backfield. As MacPherson explains, he has a guy for every role. Warren Long is the bruiser, the powerful short-yardage guy; Jackson is the one "who'll make you miss in the hole, who'll turn 5 yard runs into 15 yard runs;" Solomon Vault is the do-everything, slot receiver, catch-the-ball-out-of-the-backfield guy; and Anderson is the speedster. He's the homerun threat.
Anderson actually didn't even play running back until he was a sophomore in high school. Up until that point, he was two things: a cornerback, and a track star. But his breakaway speed (and lack of height) made the move to the backfield inevitable. The last time Anderson ran a 40-yard dash, he was clocked at 4.41 seconds. One quick look at his tape confirms that's no fluke.
The speed and quickness garnered plenty of attention in high school. By May of his junior year, Anderson had scholarship offers from Texas, Baylor, TCU, Stanford, Arkansas, UCLA and a host of others. But many of those schools gave a sense of, "you know who we are, come here." Northwestern was different. MacPherson and Fitzgerald pitched family. And it--along with his mother's constant badgering--worked.
Anderson committed on May 9. Five days later, Jackson would give his pledge to NU too. But that didn't deter Anderson. Instead, it just made him that much more excited about coming to Evanston.
Anderson wasn't unlike everybody in Northwestern's backfield when he arrived on campus last summer though. That's when a certain Venric Mark was still around.
The comparisons between the two stare you right in the face. Both are 5-foot-8. Both are from Texas. And both are fast. Really fast. Naturally, during his recruitment, Northwestern compiled a video of Anderson's highlight reel on top of Mark's to demonstrate the similarities. "Man," Anderson says he immediately thought, "I can see myself doing that."
The comparisons don't end on the field either. Mark, like Anderson, wasn't one to repress his thoughts. He spoke his mind, freely and openly, and did it with a propensity for humor. He too had a "dynamic personality." Anderson admits that at times, it was absolute hell for MacPherson having both he and Mark in the running back room.
The two only shared a few months together in the program, but became close while they were here. In fact the first time Anderson mentions Mark's name, he instinctively cuts himself off and interjects--"R.I.P."-- before continuing his train of thought. He says it with a completely straight face.
Anderson says he learned a lot from Mark, both on the field and off it. He loved his aggressive running style, despite being small--sorry, short--and just loved the way he ran in general. But he also studied the way Mark handled himself. What was remarkable, Anderson says, was the way Mark stayed loose off the field, but was all business in between the lines. That's something he'll try to emulate.
"Watching Jelly ball out was amazing," Anderson says. "In my mind, he was an All-American."
Jelly, in case you couldn't guess, is Anderson's nickname for Jackson, one of his closest friends. The two came to Northwestern alongside each other as highly touted backs, and when Jackson committed, they immediately looked forward to forming a dangerous duo on the field. They also formed a bond off it.
But as Jackson exploded as a true freshman for 1,388 total yards and 11 total touchdowns, Anderson watched from the sideline, or from his dorm back on campus. Anderson had been bothered by a hip injury for quite some time, so before he could even get on the field for summer camp, he underwent surgery to clean up the problem.
Anderson admits it was tough. But unsurprisingly, Anderson remained, according to Jackson, the team's and his biggest cheerleader on the sideline. "We see it as the room having success," Anderson says, referring to the running back unit as a whole.
The running backs are an extremely tight knit group. But with that being said, they welcome competition. Fitzgerald loves to talk about how important competition is at all positions because it pushes players to improve. And that's the case here.
Anderson is pushing Jackson. So is Long. So is Vault. But Anderson especially is. MacPherson says it was well within the realm of possibility that Anderson would've played last year had he not had surgery. And he's confident that this year, Anderson will have a sizable role to play.
After all, it's hard to keep such a "dynamic personality" away from the field. The hope is that that dynamism can carry over to the field. Asked if it has, Fitzgerald says, "Not yet. He’s learning. It will. Usually typically with guys like him that are dynamic, it usually carries over when they get some confidence. He’ll tell you he’s confident. But he’s not. It’s called false bravado. That’s the way it is with redshirt freshmen."
As he speaks, Fitzgerald can't help but break into a grin. He knows. He knows Anderson might not be special yet on the field. But he is, and will always be, special off it. He knows that bravado might be false right now, but it's still bravado. He knows that the dynamic personality will never leave him. He knows the jokes will never dry up.
And he knows that Anderson will never stop smiling.
He also knows that as long as Anderson is still around Evanston, he might not be able to stop either.