It's a Friday during the offseason, and Northwestern football weekly workouts have just concluded. Inside the weight room, upbeat music thumps out of speakers and sweat drips from the faces of exhausted players. Meanwhile, the coaches tally points earned that week by the mid-skill position groups: quarterback, running back, superback and linebacker. The players eye the board, anxiously awaiting the results, hoping their position out-worked the other three.
The points are finalized. And once again, it's the running backs on top, led by Warren Long, who has defeated everyone, from now-Tampa Bay Buccaneer Dan Vitale, one of the strongest guys on the team, to athletic linebacker Joe Jones, and every player in between.
The second-string running back climbs the ladder and hands down a huge gold belt to Auston Anderson, who holds it aloft triumphantly, basking in the glory of another week as champions. The rest of the ballcarriers gather around and pose for a picture. Behind the group is a wall covered with motivational words: "UNSELFISH." "UNSTOPPABLE." "INVESTMENT." "SACRIFICE." "CONFIDENCE."
The image brings to mind an African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." It is that exact togetherness that exists among the Northwestern running backs, a group that helped Northwestern go far last year and looks to do the same this upcoming season. This togetherness makes the position group not only one of the best in the Big Ten, but one of the best in the nation.
"There's a brotherhood in there," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "And they've got each other's back. If somebody goes down, it's the next guy up. I think that's always been that way since I've been here, the way Coach [Matt] MacPherson runs that room. He's got those guys behind each other."
It starts, inevitably, with the starter, Justin Jackson, who is well on his way to becoming the best running back, yardage-wise, in Northwestern history. The true sophomore has over 2,600 yards on the ground in two years and is on pace to demolish Damien Anderson's record for career rushing yards of 4,485. And while Jackson has the God-given gifts of vision and spacial awareness that make him one of the Big Ten's top backs, there's more to who he is.
Off the field, though, Jackson has made great strides, not only becoming a leader, but also an example for guys like Auston Anderson and John Moten, talented backs who are waiting in the wings behind him.
"Justin is probably the most cerebral football player I've been around as far as knowing the intricacies of the game and the offense," Anderson, a 5-foot-8 speedster, said. "I mean, you ask Justin anything, he's gonna know what the offensive line is doing, who's going where, what the receivers are doing, what the quarterbacks read... That's where I'm trying to get to."
Anderson and Jackson also share a special bond off the field: the former cuts the latter's hair. It started over the summer before their freshman year, when Jackson spotted Anderson cutting running back-turned-wide receiver Solomon Vault's hair and decided to let Anderson do his as well.
"I have trust issues with that," Jackson said of his hair. "But I let him do it. He did a good job, but he didn't cut it for forever after that. He cuts Solo's hair ‘cause he's his roommate, but he hadn't really cut anyone else's hair, and I needed a haircut real bad so I just asked him to do it. From then on out, he's been kinda my barber."
It's Anderson, who carries an ever-present smile and a joke or two in his back pocket, who keeps the mood light. A "small-not-short" spitfire with game-changing speed, his mouth moves almost as quickly as his feet can.
John Moten via Instagram
"Austin's always cracking jokes, keeping Coach Mac on his toes," Jackson said. "We have a good time and we work every single day and Coach Mac gives us some leeway, so we have some fun."
"That's another life, bro, I'm a changed man," Anderson quickly replied, a smile spreading across both players' faces. "I've changed my ways."
Last year's biggest target for jokes, according to Jackson, was the youngest of the bunch, the then-redshirt freshman Moten.
"We're always making fun of Johnny Mo ‘cause he looks like the oldest guy in the room even as a freshman...looking like he's 60. He loves Young Thug, which is really funny. We were in the locker room and he was talking to (defensive back) Alonzo Mayo, and I think one of Young Thug's new albums was coming out. He was like "Slime Season 2! Lonzo that's my shit!" And I think he got flak for that for probably like six months."
Added MacPherson: "The one thing in our room, whether you're Justin, whether you're John Moten, you better have thick skin. And they all do and we have a good time."
When it's time to buckle down and get to work, though, the running backs know how to do it. Jackson and Long combined for 1,747 yards in 2015, third best in the Big Ten for running back duos behind Indiana's Jordan Howard and Devine Redding (2,215) and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Curtis Samuels (1,953, with 1,821 coming from Elliot). Despite a next-to-nonexistent passing game that allowed defenders to stack the box and average-at-best line play, Long and especially Jackson thrived. Watch the latter leave Wisconsin senior cornerback Darius Hillary diving at nothing but air with a sidestep en route to a big gain.
"Putting in the work is very important to him," MacPherson said in reference to Jackson. "He takes his job very seriously as far as being prepared mentally and physically, but he's not afraid to joke around or laugh a little bit. Like a lot of guys in that room, he walks the fine line of being loose and being focused on that task at hand."
A quiet, thoughtful guy by nature, Jackson has also come into his own as a vocal presence among the running backs. He admitted he was "kind of reserved" as a freshman but now he's "trying to be that guy that can help someone else out." He continued, "So if someone does well, I'm gonna be the first one in your face congratulating you, pushing you, tapping you on the helmet, whatever."
Behind him is Long, who transformed from almost exclusively a short-yardage back in 2014 to one of the best backup running backs in the Big Ten. Had he received enough carries to qualify, Long would have ranked ranked fifth in the conference in yards per carry at 5.73, behind Maryland's Brandon Ross, Ohio State's Elliott and J.T. Barrett, and Penn State's Saquon Barkley. He received more carries (56) and had more yards (321) than in his first two seasons combined, and he scored five touchdowns, the first five of his career.
Long's development was key for Northwestern, because it allowed the team to open up the playbook even without Jackson in the game. Long could pound it up the middle or bounce it outside, something he hadn't shown as much his first two years. He displayed much improved speed and acceleration, shedding the short-yardage title. His improved speed was on display during this critical play against Duke.
He also had two touchdowns against Purdue, a game in which the offense looked disjointed and starting quarterback Clayton Thorson was briefly benched.
And that weight room strength still translates to the field. McCall said Long is "as strong as they come" and can bang in between the tackles with the best of them. Purdue's Andy James Garcia found that out the hard way.
Moten and Anderson are also expected to fill a role this coming year, McCall said. Anderson has terrific quickness and pure speed, while Moten looks to be a solid all-around back with slightly more speed than Jackson but perhaps not the side-to-side quickness. It will be interesting to see how they are used, but for now, they have two of the best in the business ahead of them.
"We're all cheering for each other," Jackson said. "We're all wanting each other to do well, and I think if we keep pushing each other we can only get better."
Jackson used the word "we" four times in two sentences, indicative of the position group's unity. There's a family inside the running backs room. A family that — along with one of the nation's top defenses — powered Northwestern to a historically good season. A family that's trying to make one another better every day.