As Northwestern heads toward its season-opening game this Saturday at home against Stanford, there is a lot already known about how the Wildcats will look in terms of who will get playing time and who won't. Even after the release of the first official two-deep depth chart for the game, though, some positions are more unclear than others.
One of those such positions is running back. Incumbent sophomore Justin Jackson will undoubtedly be the starter, and will receive most of the touches. However, after Jackson, there's a group of three or four backs who could all be involved in the Week 1 running game in one way or another. The question is how that supplementary work will be distributed.
The depth chart has junior Warren Long — who ran for 123 yards in nine games in 2014 — as Jackson's backup but redshirt freshman Auston Anderson and sophomore Solomon Vault both should see some time in the backfield as well. Treyvon Green, who ran for almost 1500 yards in his Northwestern career and 319 last season, has since graduated, so there are additional carries to be handed out. There's even the outside chance that true freshman John Moten, a highly-thought of prospect coming out of high school, and a guy who has impressed in camp, burns his redshirt and sees some time. That seems unlikely though given the depth at the position.
When Pat Fitzgerald spoke at his first game week press conference of the season a few days ago, he made it seem like Jackson and Long were going to be the focal points of the running game. He didn't mention Vault, Anderson or Moten:
"I like our depth. Justin [Jackson] is an all-Big Ten level player...I like what Warren [Long] has done; he's a big, physical back and he's had a good camp and really good offseason. We'll see how the other guys fit into the mix."
Now, we shouldn't read too much into any single quote. And this could just be Fitzgerald talking up a player who wouldn't have been talked up otherwise, and downplaying the potential influence of younger players who have been.
But this also falls in line with what we've heard all offseason. It doesn't mean that Anderson and Vault won't have roles. But it appears that Long is in line to be Jackson's true backup, the tailback NU turns to when Jackson needs a rest.
Jackson is an every down back though, or at least was last year. He's capable of playing on both running and passing downs, and he will presumably get most of the carries, as he did last season when he broke out for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns to go with 200 receiving yards.
Long, on the other hand, was almost exclusively a goal-line threat last season. But this year, he can also be expected to spell Jackson and alleviate some of the sophomore's workload.. He should essentially assume Green's role from last season as a secondary piece to the star, Jackson.
But, as Jackson has mentioned on occasion, the Wildcats are expected to use a bunch of two-back sets, with any of the two, whether it be Jackson and Anderson, or Vault and Long, on the field at the same time. And NU can do that because all four backs possess unique skillsets.
Long, the most powerful of the four, might serve in more of a fullback role, where he could be given short yardage carries or be used as a blocker. Vault could be used as a slot receiver in three- or four-receiver sets, or could line up to one side of Thorson in the shotgun, with Anderson or Jackson to the other side. Out of that formation, Northwestern would have options aplenty.
Jackson, at the press conference, also praised how the training camp competition between the running backs is only beneficial to the group and should be reflected on the field this Saturday: "That's what makes this running back battle fun. Not only are we all competing for carries and reps, but we all complement each other really well. So I'm really excited to see how we're all going to mix in."
This likely is not going to be a running back by committee. Jackson is still the bell cow, and should get in the vicinity of 20 touches per game. Over the past eight months, he's added strength to ensure he can handle that role. Still though, depth is important, and Northwestern will be able to throw a number of different looks at opposing defenses. Don't expect a ton of early season carries for Anderson or Vault, or even Long. But expect their roles to evolve as the season progresses.