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Northwestern’s running back room is an embarrassment of riches

Now it’s up to Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall to get the most out of the group of very talented athletes.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout his tenure at Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald has made it a primary goal to build “competitive depth” at every position. Whether that has meant offseason quarterback battles, rotating in nearly double-digit players in the trenches or even midseason kicking competitions, the head coach has tried to install quality players at every spot up and down the depth chart. Northwestern will rarely pull in the type of recruits that have a spot guaranteed from Day 1, so it’s up to Fitzgerald and his staff to fill the roster with guys who will at some point be able to compete for legitimate playing time.

But sometimes there’s a ton of talent accrued at one position group, perhaps due to guys outperforming recruiting rankings or extenuating circumstances. A bit of both has resulted in a logjam at running back. There’s Justin Jackson, who is on track to shatter Northwestern’s career rushing yards list and end up in the top five in the history of the Big Ten. There’s John Moten IV, whose combination of size (6-foot, 202 pounds) and speed (4.40 forty-yard dash) is probably the most impressive of the group. As a redshirt freshman, he recorded 100-plus yard games in both of the contests he received double-digit carries. Moten IV averaged 6.1 yards per carry.

Even with Warren Long having transitioned to linebacker, the depth at a position that lost absolutely no one to graduation in 2016 remains very strong. Auston Anderson was a well-regarded recruit who is now hoping to put some tough injury luck behind him and still has two years of eligibility left. There are also a pair of redshirt freshmen who should compete for touches in 2017. Jeremy Larkin was Ohio’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 while Jesse Brown provides great size and speed.

Jackson plays perhaps the biggest role in those expectations. A two-time All-Big Ten selection and one of the most consistent players in the nation, Jackson was last seen shredding a solid Pittsburgh Panthers defense for 224 yards for Northwestern’s third-ever bowl win. There’s not much to be said about Jackson that hasn’t been repeated before: He’s incredibly patient, has great vision, jukes defenders out of their shoes on a regular basis and provides solid pass protection. Though he’ll often deflect it, the praise is thoroughly deserved for a man who has had three straight 1000-yard seasons.

Fitzgerald doesn’t have many guys that forego a redshirt year and contribute in such a massive role immediately, but Jackson has done just that. He needs just 357 yards to surpass Damien Anderson’s program record; he could do it before conference play opens. Jackson is a fantastic fit for Mick McCall’s spread system not only because of his blocking and pass-catching acumen (he has caught 78 passes through three seasons), but also because it gives him a lot of one-on-one opportunities, an area he thrives in, as shown over and over again.

Behind the Ball Carrier sits Moten IV, a talented individual who brings impressive size and speed to the backfield and is only going to get better after an impressive opening act. Moten IV will miss winter and spring ball with a shoulder injury, but that has given him the opportunity to take a step back and continue to learn from Jackson as well as review his own film from last year.

“Mentally, I’m just trying to stay engaged,” the rising redshirt sophomore said. “In high school you’re kinda just watching the offense, watching what you need to do, and now you can read defenses, know schemes and stuff like that. So that’s really helpful, knowing what everyone’s doing.”

Now the question is how can Fitzgerald and McCall include both players in an offense that returns nine of its starters from 2016.

“We weren’t as engaged as they were at their age, so that’s been really impressive to see,” Jackson said. “When you tell them something and they pick it up, the next time they fix it. I think that’s really important because it’s all about improvement and it’s all about not making the same mistake twice. I think they’ve done a really good job of that. I’ve been really impressed with Jeremy, with Jesse, with all the guys really. it’s been a fun spring so far.”

For Larkin, listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, the redshirt year helped him prepare from watching both Jackson and Moten IV. With Moten IV out, though, he’s seeing an increase in reps. And he’s made the most of it, showing some of the impressive agility and make-you-miss moves that helped him pile up 8,326 all-purpose yards and 95 total touchdowns over his final three seasons in high school.

“Just being able to take what we learn off the field and put it to work on the field and continue to get the reps and continue to study film and continue to study plays and take what I’m learning off the field and bring it to the field,” Larkin said when comparing this offseason compared to last, when he was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

Even without Long in the mix, Jackson remains supremely confident in his group, even tweeting out that this is the most talented room he’s been a part of. “We’ve got a bunch of guys — a bunch of physical guys. Warren always brought that to our room, but I think we have a bunch of guys that are bringing that, and everyone’s picking up the slack, so that’s been awesome to see.”

Regardless of how the carries are divided, by the time Northwestern kicks off its 2017 campaign, there is no mistaking this: the Wildcats’ running back stable is absurdly deep and talented. It’s a blessing few other teams in the nation have, and it’s a major reason expectations are high in Evanston headed into next season.