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2017 Northwestern football position previews: Running Back

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Justin Jackson comes into 2017 looking to break records.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Northwestern v Pittsburgh Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The second part of our 2017 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 back. For the final time, Northwestern will have Justin Jackson as their starting running back, but there is also a pretty solid backup in John Moten IV.

Overview

Returning starters (career starts): Justin Jackson (Sr.) (30)

Key losses: Warren Long is now a linebacker

Other returners: John Moten IV (So.), Auston Anderson (Jr.), Corey Acker (Sr.), Jeremy Larkin (R-Fr.), Jesse Brown (R-Fr.), Chad Hanaoka (Sr.)

Incoming freshmen: None

Justin Jackson had the best season of his career in 2016, finishing 13th in the nation with 1,524 yards and 21st in the nation with 15 touchdowns. He had some insane stat lines throughout the season, posting 171 yards and 1 TD against Iowa, 188 yards and 2 TDs against Michigan St. and 173 yards and 3 TDs against Illinois. But nothing came close to his absolute torching of the Pitt Panthers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Jackson had 224 yards, 3 TDs and averaged 7.0 yards per carry. He also absolutely embarrassed another man on national television.

(This juke may have possibly caused EIC Tristan Jung to scream very loudly in the press box, but it cannot be confirmed at this time.)

Jackson was once again the star, but the best development from last year was the emergence of John Moten IV as a legit number two. Moten didn’t see much action till the end of the season but had huge games against Purdue (119 yards) and Illinois (128 yards and 2 TDs). If Northwestern can get more of that from Moten in 2017, they’ll be a destructive rushing attack.

Key Player

Justin Jackson

It’s easy and it’s obvious, but Justin Jackson is the most important running back on the team. It’s not even close. For the fourth and final time, Justin Jackson will lineup in the Northwestern backfield to start the season, and much of the team’s success in 2017 will lie on his shoulders. If that worries you for any reason, take a quick look at the last game Jackson played.

Jackson enters 2017 in second place all time on the Northwestern rushing list with 4,129 yards, just 356 yards behind leader Damien Anderson’s 4,485 yards. He’s also just 8 TDs behind Anderson for all time touchdown leader. So he should be a Northwestern record holder by about week three then. Hopefully Moten will be able to take a few more carries away from Jackson so he can stay fresh, but JJ is still the man in 2017.

Big Question

What will John Moten IV bring in year two?

Justin Jackson is the lead back for Northwestern, but he’s also carried the ball 855 times over the past three years. There’s bound to be some wear and tear there. With Warren Long switching over to the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats need a secondary option to make sure Jackson isn’t carrying the ball 35 times a game. They seem to have found that in John Moten IV.

As we already detailed, Moten came out of nowhere at the end of the season to have a couple huge games. While that’s what we all remember, it’s also worth noting that he only had 27 carries and 93 yards in the other 11 games. Moten is exciting because we know what he can do, but maybe it’s a bit an overreaction considering most of his stats came against Purdue and Illinois.

Moten establishing himself as a real number two would be the best thing that could happen to Northwestern this year and for the future. If Moten can solidly produce this year, he’s the heir apparent for the team in the A.J.J. era. At the very least he appears to have all the skills, and the physical build to do so.

Can anyone else can burst onto the scene at some point like Moten did as a redshirt freshman last year? One candidate is redshirt freshman Jeremy Larkin. You may remember Larkin as the running back who committed to Cincinnati before switching to Northwestern. He was the top recruit in the 2016 class, and we’ll have to see if that translates to the college game. He’s a speed guy who may see some snaps as a change of pace, it will up to him to take advantage of them.

As long as Moten keeps improving and Jackson is his usual self, the Northwestern rushing attack will be dominant again in 2017. Now they just have to hope the passing attack can say the same.

Running Back Depth Chart

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Justin Jackson John Moten IV Auston Anderson or Jeremy Larkin

Another career year from Jackson would be fantastic, but with Moten as a back up, the best he can is good enough.