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With big shoes to fill and a new position coach on hand, Jeremy Larkin looks to become Northwestern’s next great running back

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Without Justin Jackson for the first time in four years, Northwestern hopes Larkin can be the next great Wildcat back.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Placing his hand on left guard J.B. Butler’s back, Jeremy Larkin headed right, navigating defenders and reading his linemens’ blocks in front of him. A small crease opened — a solid gain might have been there — but Larkin wasn’t looking for a solid gain, and instinct took over. He jumped to his left, reversing course from where the play was designed to go, and left the entire left half of the field in his wake, squeezing into the left corner of the endzone to put Northwestern up 13-7 in Lincoln in early November.

Larkin showed a little bit of everything his predecessor, Justin Jackson, showed during his legendary career as a Wildcat: patience, vision, footwork, speed and quickness. But just because Larkin spent two seasons learning under the program’s all-time leading rusher doesn’t mean he’ll replicate him exactly.

“They’re different guys,” Pat Fitzgerald said Saturday. “Tyrell Sutton, Darnell Autry, Damien Anderson, the list goes on and on of great backs, JJ, Jason Wright, Noah Herron... Just be the best you can be.”

There’s a long way to go before Larkin joins that list, but early returns were overwhelmingly positive. In his redshirt freshman season, Larkin carried the ball 84 times for 503 yards — good for a team-leading 6.0 yards per carry among players with at least 11 carries — and five touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 115 yards in his debut campaign.

“I reached all the goals — I was reaching for five touchdowns, 500 yards, and one 100-yard game,” Larkin said. “And then after looking back at it, I was underselling it because I realized after actually getting out there and seeing some of the stuff, I should have rushed for more. There was small stuff that could have made it such a better year. So I felt good about it, but there’s so much more room for improvement.”

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The impressive inaugural campaign came just months after one of his most difficult seasons as a football player. Larkin redshirted his first year on campus. But unlike other redshirted players, who could at least practice with the team, Larkin missed the fall after undergoing shoulder surgery. “It made me realize I love football. It was so weird being out of football for a whole year,” he said.

But Larkin, an Ohio state champion and offensive player of the year in his senior year at LaSalle High School in Cincinnati, wasn’t one to wallow in self pity. Instead, he studied Jackson’s off-field habits with extra film sessions and lessons in recovery — “Just looking at how he took care of himself and was able to go out there every day, that’s one of the biggest things I learned,” he said Saturday.

In terms of on-field performance, Larkin focused specifically on pass protection, often one of the things even the best high school running backs struggle with in their transition to college ball. The diligence paid off: Larkin hit the ground running as a well-rounded back in 2017 spring practices, and Fitzgerald knew he would “absolutely” be a key part of the game plan in the fall without him ever having played a snap.

“His toughness shows up,” new running backs coach Louis Ayeni said. “His fundamentals and technique — he’s taking the coaching. He’s done a really good job in competitive situations picking up blitzes... He’s using his Northwestern smarts to help him in the pass protection game.”

Even after a successful individual season — by his, the coaching staffs’ and fans’ standards alike — Larkin knew that with Jackson’s departure, he would have to continue his upward trajectory. To do that, the redshirt sophomore has focused on emulating his forerunner in an area he refers to as “hidden yards” — the yards that might not seem to be there upon first glance, and the yards at which Jackson excelled finding. That’s where Ayeni, who played running back and returned punts for the Wildcats in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has come in handy.

“He’s given [the running backs] so many more techniques and small things that help us for our game,” Larkin said. “A great guy for a great fit and a great hire.”

“I’ve been privileged to be around some great backs, guys that have been good college players and been good pro players,” Ayeni added. “You guys had Justin Jackson here for the last four years. A lot of his runs were incredible. There are hidden yards in there to get to 5000 yards.”

With the program’s all-time leading rusher gone and all-time winningest quarterback on the mend, Larkin will play a crucial role as Northwestern hopes to continue its climb as a program. He spent much of his Saturday morning darting through small creases and using his remarkable speed and quickness to get to the second level in Northwestern’s exquisite new practice facility. If returns from his first year and the progress he has made this offseason are any sign, Northwestern is in good hands in its backfield once again.