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Northwestern football position preview: Running backs

Justin Jackson is the star, but he’ll have help.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

Next up is running backs. Justin Jackson is one of the best ballcarriers (sorry) in the Big Ten, but Northwestern also has solid depth behind him.

Overview

Returning Starters (career starts): Justin Jackson (Jr.) (18)

Key Losses: None

Other Returners: Warren Long (Sr.), Auston Anderson (So.), John Moten IV (R-Fr.)

Incoming Freshmen: Jeremy Larkin, Jesse Brown

This position group is rare in that it returns all of its contributors from last season. The only technical loss is Solomon Vault, who is transitioning to wide receiver. Justin Jackson is the star and has the starting role locked up, but he’s not alone. Warren Long is back for one more year after a breakout campaign in 2015, and he figures to be first in line for carries behind Jackson, especially in the red zone and on third downs. The third-string job is up for grabs between Auston Anderson and John Moten IV, with Moten appearing to have taken the lead during the spring. Both of the incoming freshmen look promising, especially Jeremy Larkin, but will have a hard time getting playing time at a position with so much depth, and one or both could redshirt.

Key Player

Justin Jackson

Pat Fitzgerald has a true workhorse lead back in Justin Jackson, who has amassed over 2,600 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry in his first two years as a Wildcat. Jackson’s production has come despite Northwestern having inconsistent offensive line play and shaky passing games during his time in Evanston. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but uses elite vision and patience to find running lanes and is tough to bring down in open field. He’s shifty, can fight through tackles, and has enough speed to rip off chunks of yards. He’s also a very capable receiver out of the backfield. Basically, he’s really good.

Northwestern would love more of the same from the junior, and any improvements would be icing on the cake.

Big Question

Will Jackson’s workload be reduced in Year Three?

Jackson has proven to be not only talented, but remarkably durable as well. The Ballcarrier has lived up to his nickname by toting the rock 557 times in two seasons; his 312 carries in 2015 trailed only Heisman winner Derrick Henry and finalist Christian McCaffrey in the entire FBS. Adding his 43 receptions, Jackson has had a whopping 600 touches as an underclassman. He’s been able to avoid any injuries during that time, but the nature of the position means that is always a concern. A massive workload like the one he had last year increases that concern, and also runs the risk of eventually wearing him down. If the coaching staff wants to lighten Jackson’s workload to keep him fresh and healthy, it has the personnel to do it. Long, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season, could continue to see his role increase as the change-of-pace back. Whoever wins the third spot between Moten and Anderson will be a big-play threat that could add another element to the offense in an expanded role. Jackson going down would be a catastrophic loss, so it’s in Northwestern’s best interest to do what it can to keep that from happening.

Depth Chart

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Justin Jackson Warren Long John Moten IV

As I've mentioned, the interesting battle to watch is for the third-string spot. This time last year, Anderson was projected to play a meaningful role as a redshirt freshman. However, the former highly-sought after recruit barely saw the field behind Long and Vault, rushing for just 56 yards, all of which came in Northwestern's 41-0 beatdown of Eastern Illinois. He does have a year of experience on Moten, but reports out of spring camp from our Henry Bushnell and Ben Goren were that Moten appears to be leading the competition.

The third running back spot is still a competition and will continue to be fought for through the fall, but Moten appears to be the leader for now. That isn't to say that Anderson won't ever see the field, but Moten looks comfortably ahead right now to our eyes.

Jackson is the guy, but Northwestern has a deep, exciting crop of backs for this season and the future.