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Superbacks preview: NU hopes to reload following Dickerson’s departure

Roommates off the field, Cam Green and Trey Pugh are pushing each other as they compete for the starting superback role.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Jackson’s graduation left an often-talked-about hole in Northwestern’s offense. But the Wildcat offense saw another starter head to the NFL as well — superback Garrett Dickerson, whose abilities on and off the field represent another loss for NU.

“Being that Garrett was the leader of our room, his leaving changes a lot,” junior superback Cameron Green said. “It forces a few of us to step up.”

Of the various position groups that lost stars, the superback squad was often forgotten. But luckily for the ‘Cats, the group has used the off season to prove they have just the right mix of veteran leadership and raw young talent to begin the 2018 season right where they left off.

Although Green is the most experienced member of the position group, he credits senior James Prather with filling the vocal leadership role while he continues to find his own role as a leader.

“But at the same time with our group it’s almost like you don’t have to lead them,” Green said. “We’re very well-driven and we like to feed off of each other so as long as one person’s doing well we’re all doing well; that’s most interesting thing about our room itself.”

Competitive depth

Aside from Green and Prather, the superbacks run deep with experienced and capable athletes. Pat Fitzgerald has been happy with the promise the rest of the room has shown, particularly sophomores Trey Pugh and Eric Eshoo.

Superbacks coach Bob Heffner echoed Fitz’s sentiment, adding that he’s been impressed with the strong return Eshoo has made since being injured last season. “Eric has had a fantastic camp,” Heffner said. “He really has made a lot of improvement on everything.”

With the complex skill set and many different roles required of the superbacks, an eight-member unit is necessary. With Heffner using two and sometimes even three superbacks on the field, having a variety of guys to step up in different situations is crucial.

Although there could seem to be a lot of guys fighting for “one” role, Green said the group competes together rather than against each other to get as many of them on the field as possible.

“We just push each other so that the coaches trust us to put all of us on the field,” Green said. “As superbacks we have to be versatile, it’s unpredictable.”

Dickerson was a special superback because of his exceptional blocking skills combined with his pass-catching ability — a difficult skillset to juggle. Still, Heffner said he has been impressed with his 2018 group, particularly Green and Pugh. Aside from their size and natural skill, particularly as wideouts, Heffner said the dedication and time they’ve put into being solid blockers is clear.

“They could always run routes and be good receivers,” Heffner said. “I think they both worked really hard on being really good blockers and that is not easy to do, nobody wants to do the dirty work.”

Looking to build

Entering this season, Green will be the most experienced superback following a breakout 2017 campaign. As a sophomore, he finished the regular season with 20 receptions, 170 yards and two touchdowns. He was named the Offensive Big Playmaker following the Maryland game where he caught a team-high six receptions for 49 yards in the 37-21 win.

“I’ve been really impressed by Cam,” Fitz said. “He’s a young man that’s been through a lot and understands what it’s going to take to go through the grind of being in that role.”

Green, who converted from wide receiver in 2016, added another big honor to his resume when he was named Offensive Player of the Week after the Michigan State triple overtime win. The award was well earned — Green hauled in a 25-yard reception early in the fourth quarter, 14-yard touchdown pass in the first overtime and two-point conversion in the third overtime to score the final points of the 39-31 win.

After proving himself behind Dickerson in various high-pressure situations, Green will now have the opportunity to showcase his full potential as NU’s starting superback.

“It’s something that almost every football player would want to do, to be on the field as much as possible, especially after kind of waiting for my turn happen to be able to go on the field and play football like I came here to do is amazing,” Green said. “It’s a humbling experience having to sit on the sidelines, but it’s also exciting to have your chance to go out there and make plays that you know you can.”

Pugh, who will likely contribute just as much as Green, had less experience in 2017. But as an early enrollee, Pugh gained valuable experience in the offseason and appeared in 11 games as a true first year, largely on special teams units.

Although he didn’t get much time as a superback last season, Pugh made the snaps he did get count. In overtime of the Nebraska game, Northwestern chose to go for it on third-and-goal from the one-yard-line, and Pugh’s push drove Clayton Thorson into the end zone to put what would be the game-winning points on the board.

Now, Pugh will have the opportunity to showcase his superback skills on a regular basis.

“I’m excited to get on the field and have more of a significant role because I want to be able to exhibit my abilities and perform at a high level that I know I’m capable of,” Pugh said.

Although his role will be larger, Pugh said his mentality will remain the same. However, now that the has a year of experience under his belt, he’s looking forward to helping the younger guys and continuing to work with the cohesive group.

“I’m a lot more experienced and feel that I have a lot more input to give to the freshmen and tips I can give to other guys,” Pugh said. “Other than that it’s still the same relationships and we all get along just as well as before.”

A tightly-knit group

Although Green and Pugh will likely be the two garnering the most playing time, both say they see the competitive nature of the superbacks as an asset. For Pugh, having depth in the group doesn’t mean additional people to contend with, instead it means more guys can step in and be capable of making plays.

Fitz mentioned the group’s noticeable connectivity and camaraderie, something which Heffner said stems from Green and Pugh’s close relationship off the field. “We’ve got an older guy and a little bit younger guy and those two live together, so it doesn’t get any better than that from a standpoint of working together,” Heffner said.

Green said being roommates has helped his relationship with Pugh , as they’re not worried about who’s a starter, but are focused on motivating each other and ideally getting out on the field at the same time.

“That’s what we aim for, to push each other to do each other’s best, and it’s much easier to do that now that we’re living together and able to see each other firsthand,” Green said. “It’s just awesome having one of your best friends as your roommates and also in the same position room, that’s one of the coolest things about it.”

Pugh credits the closeness of the group as a whole off the field with being part of the reason for their success, as he said being around a group of guys that gets along off the field makes everything from practice to team meetings that much better.

“Just being so close to somebody, especially your roommate, you’re with them every day, you know the ins and outs of them, it’s comfortable being around them,” Pugh said. “It just makes playing football with him and the other guys so much more enjoyable.”