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FILM: John Moten IV brings more than just speed to the Northwestern backfield

The redshirt freshman was a track star in high school but has started to become a versatile running back.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In a couple years, we might remember a few different things about Northwestern’s blowout defeat of Purdue last Saturday. We’ll probably remember that it brought the Wildcats within one win of bowl eligibility. Maybe we’ll recall that it was the game in which Austin Carr tied D’Wayne Bates for the NU single-season TD receptions record. If you read my film breakdown from earlier this week, perhaps you’ll remember that it featured Montre Hartage’s first dominant performance at cornerback. It wasn’t necessarily the most memorable game, but in the future it could provide some nice moments to look back on.

Then we’ll think a little harder, and it’ll come to us. “Oh, yeah. That was John Moten’s coming out party.”

In 2018, Justin Jackson, one of the best running backs in Northwestern history, will no longer be around. Assuming everyone stays healthy, there’s a good chance senior quarterback Clayton Thorson will be handing the ball off to Moten quite a bit that year, and we’ll look back on Nov. 12, 2016, as the day his rise to stardom began.

Okay, perhaps this all a bit premature. Moten has had one good game against a really, really bad run defense and will have plenty of competition from current freshmen Jeremy Larkin and Jesse Brown to take over as the starter when Jackson’s historic career wraps up. But it’s tough not to get excited about what was on display in that one good game, even if it was against Purdue. Moten, who entered the game with just 82 rushing yards in the first nine games, carried the ball 16 times for 119 yards and added a 20-yard reception.

Jackson ran for 127 yards and a couple touchdowns, meaning it was Northwestern’s first game with multiple 100-yard rushers since 2013. Purdue was simply overwhelmed by the duo, which kept each other fresh and whose running styles aren’t identical.

“We definitely have different running styles,” Moten said. “He uses his vision and quickness and I try to use my speed.”

Moten showed off plenty of his blazing speed last Saturday, but also showed that there’s more to him as a runner than just that.

Let’s take a look at the film.


This is what makes Moten special.

As a high school senior in 2014, Moten won a Missouri state championship by running the 100-meter dash in 10.58 seconds. On the football field, he simply looks different than Jackson does in open space, because his long strides are so full of burst. Just watch these runs.

“A lot of speed,” offensive lineman Tommy Doles said about what he sees in Moten. “He’s also a guy that hits holes and makes the most of everything we can open up for him.”

That speed also comes in handy when Moten is asked to catch the ball out of the backfield. Here’s an example against Iowa earlier this season.

Iowa LB Ben Niemann (No. 44) is assigned to cover Moten on this play, but isn’t nearly fast enough to stay with him. Moten’s speed helps him get open and then turn up the field and pick up a solid gain.

Against Purdue, Moten flew out of the backfield on a wheel route and was wide open for another big gain.

Notice how easily Moten bounced off of the tackle attempt from the DB? That’s a perfect lead-in to examine another aspect of Moten’s game.


At 6-foot and 202 pounds, Moten is actually bigger than Jackson in addition to being faster. He doesn’t shy away from contact, and he demonstrated the ability to finish runs a couple of times against Boilermaker defenders.

In the above play, Moten first makes contact with the linebacker at midfield, a couple of yards shy of a first down. However, he lowers his shoulder and plows through the tackle to easily move the chains. Here’s another example, from the very next play.

Once again, Moten doesn’t go down easily, even against a defender whose center of gravity is lower than his. Moten fights through the initial contact and is able to fall forwards for an extra yard or two.


Moten isn’t anywhere near Jackson’s level in this category. Jackson is one of the best running backs in the nation when it comes to vision, patience and agility. With that said, Moten had a couple of runs against Purdue that made it seem like No. 21 has been teaching him a thing or two. Who better to learn from?

Here’s a great example of Moten waiting for his blocking to develop before turning upfield.

This next play showcases Moten’s vision, as he finds the hole and knows when to bounce outside Flynn Nagel’s block to pick up as many yards as possible.

And finally, a Jackson-esque cut in a one-on-one, open field situation.


Moten has come a long way this season.

“I’m really proud of his growth,” Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “With the ball in his hands, he’s pretty good. He’s got a lot more confidence in the position outside of carrying the ball. He’s going to continue to get better and better.”

Moten’s breakout game should give fans a lot of optimism for the future. Focusing on the present, though, Northwestern has found the dynamic change-of-pace option it has been looking for since Warren Long got hurt. Moten should continue to have a role (probably around 5-10 carries depending on the flow of the game and the situations Northwestern’s offense puts itself in) in the season’s final two or three games and will absolutely be involved next year, even if Jackson and Long return. He’s still got plenty of improving to do, but one area of the redshirt freshman’s game will always be a huge threat and add a new dimension to the offense.

As longtime Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say: “You can’t teach speed.”