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Northwestern football summer guide: Running backs

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Justin Jackson is a stud, but there are also complimentary options.

David Banks/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, Inside NU will be releasing its 2015 Northwestern Football Summer Guide, a season preview that will look at each positional unit, address the biggest storylines, and answer the most pressing questions that face the Wildcats this fall.

First up, we have our position previews, which serve as a primer for how things could shake out for each group ahead of fall camp in August. Today, the focus is the running backs — which, as a unit, are a lot more than just Justin Jackson.

Overview

Returning Starters: Justin Jackson (So.)
Key Losses: Treyvon Green
Other Returning Players: Warren Long (Jr.), Solomon Vault (So.), Auston Anderson (RS Fr.)
Incoming Freshmen: John Moten

If we're being completely honest, we do not know a lot about what Northwestern's offense will look like in 2015. We don't know who will be throwing the football. We don't know who will be blocking for the guy throwing the football. And we don't know who will be catching said football. However, the one position we are pretty sure about personnel-wise is running back. NU's best offensive player is returning this year, and that's about the best news fans can ask for.

Key Player

Justin Jackson

This should come as no surprise. In his freshman campaign, the Carol Stream, Ill. native emerged as the feature back — especially significant considering running backs coach Matt McPherson historically prefers the running back-by-committee approach, splitting carries between two or more players. Jackson rushed for 1187 yards on 245 attempts (173 more carries than Treyvon Green, 2014's second most frequent ball-carrier). Despite limited offseason participation due to a knee injury and surgery, another big year is expected out of Jackson in 2015.

Big Question

What will we see from the other backs?

Obviously Justin Jackson will garner attention from fans and opposing teams, but he cannot shoulder the load all by himself. Running backs get banged up — especially relatively small but physical runners like Jackson. In the event that he goes down, someone else from this year's deep stable of backs must step up. And even if Jackson stays 100 percent healthy for the entire season, at the very least, Northwestern will need solid contributions from guys like Warren Long, Solomon Vault and Auston Anderson.

Both Long and Anderson showed promise as complimentary backs during spring's open practices. The former was used sparingly as a spell back in 2014, but he could see an increased role this season following the departure of Treyvon Green. Long has bulked up a bit since last season (though that mass could melt away by the end of the summer), and it looks like Northwestern will employ his sturdy frame in short-yardage situations. Long isn't quite as shifty as Green was, but he does possess better breakaway speed.

The scatback role will likely fall on the shoulders of Auston Anderson, who is coming off a hip surgery that forced him to redshirt in 2014. The 5-foot-9, 183-pound speedster's open-field abilities are reminiscent of Venric Mark. Will he have a 2012 Mark-esque impact this season? Probably not, at least not so long as Justin Jackson suits up. Nevertheless, Anderson will emerge as a key playmaker for the Wildcats should he live up to expectations.

It will be interesting to see what Mick McCall does with Solomon Vault this season. Though he is still officially a running back both on paper and in position meetings, there is a possibility he could see time in the slot. Whether Vault remains part of the running back rotation or functions primarily as a pass-catcher is unclear, but he will get his fair share of touches one way or another.

Perhaps there are more question marks at running back than initially stated. The biggest issue is figuring out how to ration touches to so many capable weapons though... not a bad problem to have if you ask me.

Projected Depth Chart

1st String 2nd String
Justin Jackson Auston Anderson AND Warren Long AND Solomon Vault

Jackson is the clear-cut starter, but behind him, there is no true "backup." Neither Anderson nor Long nor Vault is necessarily ahead of the other two. Instead, they will each fill their respective role to supplement Jackson's work, and will all see the field.