Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.
As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. Now, we turn our attention to the running backs.
Returning starters: Justin Jackson (Jr.)
Other returning contributors: Warren Long (Sr.), RB/WR Solomon Vault (Jr.), Auston Anderson (So.)
Redshirt freshmen: John Moten
Incoming freshmen: Jeremy Larkin, Jesse Brown
In an offense that seemingly has question marks at every position group, running back feels like a safe oasis from any uncertainty. The unit is not losing any seniors from last season (although junior Solomon Vault is expected to transition from running back to slot receiver, as he did for the bowl game) and returns dependable starter Justin Jackson, change-of-pace backup Warren Long and even wild card Auston Anderson.
With Jackson firmly entrenched as the starter — and Long/Anderson behind him — there won't be many carries for Vault in all likelihood, but he could still line up as a running back in certain formations.
Impressive redshirt freshman John Moten also enters the folds this season and he could potentially see some time in trick plays — perhaps think of Jelani Roberts's role this season — because of his speed and elusiveness and overall ability. Otherwise, however, the numbers seem stacked against him. Jeremy Larkin, one of Northwestern's top Class of 2016 recruits, and Jesse Brown are both smaller backs and are likely redshirt candidates.
Justin Jackson's backup
Jackson, who has rushed for over 1100 yards in each of his first two college seasons, is a top-flight starting running back who shows no signs of slowing down. But, while he can take the lion's share of his team's carries each game, who will regularly step in for him is not certain. It probably will be Long — who averaged 5.5 yards on 60 carries last season with 5 touchdowns — but it's not out of the question for the smaller and quicker Anderson or Moten to also see major playing time as Jackson's main reserve. The senior has the edge over both of them, but if Mick McCall wants to supplement Jackson with a speedster, Anderson or Moten may see more touches behind Jackson.
Can Jackson continue his remarkable consistency?
There's no reason to think a running back who ran for 4.8 yards per carry in his freshman season and 4.5 in his sophomore one will suddenly fall back in his junior campaign. Jackson, who ran the ball 67 more times in 2015 than he did the year prior, saw his touchdowns cut in half from 10 to 5 but continued to carry the Wildcats' offense as he did the season before.
The key is for Jackson to stay healthy. Fortunately, he has yet to deal with many, if any at all, injuries since coming to Evanston. But, if his carries aren't managed well, he could get worn down and hurt, which would be devastating to the Wildcats' offensive attack. If he's able to remain as healthy as he's been his entire career, he should be as good in 2016 as he was in 2014 and 2015. His vision, patience, agility and balance is unmatched by the wide majority of running backs not only in the Big Ten, but the nation as a whole.
Breakout player to watch
After redshirting his true freshman season due to injury, Anderson only carried the ball 13 times for 56 yards in 2015. The Texas native — who chose Northwestern over Arizona, Baylor, Cal, Stanford, Texas and multiple other power-conference schools — is just 5-foot-9 but is explosive and should see a major uptick in playing time his sophomore year. His style of running is dissimilar to both Jackson and Long, so he provides another dimension of back to an unfortunately staid offensive system. However, Anderson seemed like the player to watch last year at this time as well, but remained buried on the depth chart all season. In his third year in Evanston, it's time to make a leap.
Depth chart projection