To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2018. We’ve put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
Our top five list kicks off with running back Jeremy Larkin.
Graham Brennan (Rank: NR):
Jeremy Larkin ran for over 500 yards last season. He averaged six yards per carry as well. Those are terrific numbers considering the fact that his predecessor — and Northwestern football golden boy — Justin Jackson gobbled up roughly 75 percent of the carries, and presumably turned every defensive coordinator’s attention towards stopping the run.
Jackson never came close to Larkin’s six yards per carry during his time at Northwestern. Jackson’s best year was 2016, aka the forgettable season sandwiched between two outstanding ones. Yes, winning 10 games in the Big Ten with little fan support and poor facilities is outstanding. Despite the “27 wins in three years” line that the NU Football account tweets almost daily, there will always be that mediocre 2016 season.
Jackson had 15 touchdowns, rushed for 1500+ yards and averaged a career best 5.1 yards per carry in the seven win 2016 season. His career year was Northwestern’s down year.
My point is this: running backs, relative to every other offensive position, do not matter. Jackson’s six best games last year came against bad teams. Yes, Northwestern won all those games so you could make the argument that Jackson paced the team in six season defining wins.
But two things: if Jackson, our favorite Wildcat, was unable to have a good game against a good opponent in his senior season, I doubt Larkin will be able to in his sophomore season. Northwestern fans always complain about our inability to break through and beat a marquee opponent. If Jackson was unable to run freely against a marquee opponent, I don’t expect Larkin to. Placing wildly unrealistic expectations on someone and then saying ‘its important he reaches them’ strikes me as dumb and not the point of this series.
The chief reason behind my rational, however, is that I give more credit to an offensive line than I do a running back when a team has a dominant rushing performance. My greater theory about football is that running backs play only as well as their line does. Collegiate backs not named Saquon Barkley don’t win big time games (Alabama running backs have always run behind three-plus future pros, so don’t bring them up in retort).
A dominant performance in the trenches will win Northwestern important games at Ryan Field against Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin in 2018. That’s why I put five offensive and defensive lineman in my top 10 Most Important Players for 2018.
All signs point to Larkin filling the Ball Carrier’s shoes beautifully. However, he’s not one of my 10 most ‘important’ players given the position he plays.
Davis Rich (Rank: 3):
I want to push back on two premises.
First, simply because Jackson had his best games against mediocre or bad competition shouldn’t diminish his accomplishments at all. When facing bad competition, you’re probably going to put up better numbers. Moreover, Jackson ran past, over, and around a Minnesota defense that ranked 46th in the country. He had 131 yards and one unforgettable play against a 15th-ranked Iowa defense. And, what made Jackson so special was his consistency. Game in and game out, he chunked out four-yard gains, regardless of the opponent. Football is often a war of attrition, and having a durable, consistent running back is invaluable, especially in the Big Ten.
Second, I’d argue Jackson was often successful in spite of his offensive line. During JJTBC’s four years at NU, his offensive line ranked 83rd, 84th, 68th, and 97th nationally in adjusted line yards. That’s not exactly exemplary play in the trenches. Jackson’s production never wavered.
Anyways, on to Larkin. I ranked the redshirt sophomore so high on my rankings in part because of the shoes he has to fill, but more so because of the dynamics of Northwestern’s offense scheme.
First, we’re not sure about Clayton Thorson’s status. If Thorson isn’t under center on Aug. 30, defenses will put eight guys in the box and dare NU to beat them vertically. The pressure will be Larkin (and whoever is under center, of course) to create a working offense.
Second, this is Mick McCall’s Northwestern offense. Just because Jackson is gone doesn’t mean the run game will disappear. Northwestern will run the ball on half its plays on offense, if not more. Jesse Brown and John Moten IV are capable backups (not to mention freshman Isaiah Bowser). But, if Larkin can stay healthy, 200 or more of those carries are his. He’ll need to produce.