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Northwestern needs Warren Long to be more than just a backup running back

Advanced stats back it up: Justin Jackson cannot do it all by himself, and Long is more than good enough to help.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Henry. Christian McCaffrey. Justin Jackson. One is a Heisman Trophy winner who currently plays for the Tennessee Titans. One is a Heisman finalist who ran for over 2,000 yards in 2015. The other is Justin Jackson. The three don’t have much in common, but where they are similar is that they each had over 310 rushing attempts last season as the most-worked running backs in the FBS.

Henry ran for 2,219 yards on 395 carries while McCaffrey needed 337 attempts for his 2,019 yards. Jackson’s 312 rushes netted him 1,418 yards, which is still respectable for the rising junior but not nearly as jaw-dropping as the other two.

It’s no secret that Jackson is by far the best offensive player at Northwestern’s disposal and easily the most important. Thankfully, he’s a very good player so that’s not a bad thing for the Wildcats and offensive coordinator Mick McCall. But, with over 550 carries in his first two college seasons, has Jackson been overworked? If so, does that mean he’s in for a tough junior campaign?

Jackson is one of seven players to be ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushing attempts in each of the last two seasons. The 5-11, 190-pound back has been able to absorb that heavy workload with relative ease so far in his short college career, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to handle 300-plus carries again while continuing to be the offense’s productive focal point.

“Carrying the ball 30 times, it wears on you,” Pat Fitzgerald said at the team’s media day. “Trying to get a little bit more balance in the running back room will be something we’ll try to look to do.”

That’s where Warren Long comes in. The California native is entering his senior season as he wraps up a Northwestern career which has seen his importance to the offense rise consistently. Long’s carries have doubled in each of the past two years, culminating in his 60-rush, 329-yard and five-touchdown junior campaign.

With a couple of inches, and 20 pounds or so, on Jackson, Long is the perfect secondary option to the Wildcats’ top ball-carrier. He has done a good job in that role so far, but—if Jackson is to avoid the downturn in production his massive workload suggests he’ll go through—Long will need to be an even bigger part of the offense.

Outside of his 12 rushing attempts in Northwestern’s 41-0 rout of Eastern Illinois in Week 2, Long’s season-high in carries was just seven, accomplished on three occasions. Considering that Justin Jackson eclipsed the 30-carry mark in four different games, it’s clear that Long should be getting much more run than he has in the past.

“I think Warren Long has earned [a bigger role],” Fitzgerald added. “We went through our self-scout and we didn’t play Warren enough. He’s definitely gonna have a role.”

The stats back that statement up.

According to SBNation’s Bill Connelly, Long was actually Northwestern’s most advantageous runner in 2015. Using the statistic highlight yards per opportunity—which is only used for runs of over five yards so that offensive line performance isn’t factored in—Long was the Wildcats’ best rusher at creating his own running lanes after the line’s initial blocks were made. At 7.7 yards per opportunity, Long bested Jackson by over three yards in this category, showing how valuable he is in the open field.

Additionally—and perhaps more impressively—Long made more with less than Jackson did in 2015, too. Shortly after the regular season concluded, we wrote at length about what makes Jackson so good: that exact ability to make something out of nothing.

Incredibly, the line actually “did its job” on a lower percentage of Long’s carries: just 31.7 percent. Yes, Long’s sample size is much smaller, but he showed to be just as good—if not better—than Jackson at creating yards when they weren’t made available by the offensive line.

To be fair, Jackson is the superior all-around back in terms of protecting and pass catching ability. He’s the prototypical three-down back, which Long isn’t. He’s going to get the majority of carries, and there shouldn’t be a drastic dropoff in his numbers. But even three-down backs need breaks here and there, especially with the incredible talent behind him.

As exhibited with his long touchdown runs against Duke and Purdue last season, Long provides a different dimension to the running game that need to be utilized more this year. It’s not sustainable for Jackson to absorb the hits from 25-plus carries a game in addition to his sizable contributions in the passing game.

Long isn’t a pass-catching back, so there’s no reason for him to have just one-fifth the carries Jackson has. The Wildcats are only going as far this season as Justin Jackson takes them, so any usage-related decline could spell disaster for Fitzgerald’s team. As a result, the coaching staff has to be proactive and give Long more touches on a regular basis.

Jackson is reliable and almost always gets the job done. He’s the guy you’ll turn to when you absolutely need the play to be made. But Long can change the complexion of a game with one big run and provide good consistent running when Jackson gets a breather, which should be more often in 2016.

The Chicago Tribune recently wrote about how Northwestern hopes its passing offense can limit Jackson’s wear-and-tear. But, the best way to do that—rather than changing the team’s offensive identity—is probably just turning to the guy next to Jackson in the running back room.