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What’s going on with Northwestern’s superbacks?

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NU’s unique position isn’t seeing the love it has in past years.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Replacing Cameron Green’s impressive production at superback in 2018 was one of the biggest questions facing the Northwestern offense heading into this year’s season.

Five games into the season, that offseason question has officially become an in-season concern.

Like they always seem to do, the stats paint a clear picture of the current predicament the Wildcats are facing at a position that has long been a staple of their offense. At this point last year, Green had emerged as one of Northwestern’s top targets on offense and as a safety blanket for a quarterback desperately in need of one.

Through five games last season, NU had gotten 30 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns from Green in the superback position. When the redshirt junior announced his medical retirement following a 2018 campaign that saw him finish third in the team in receptions, it was always going to be a struggle to replace that kind of production.

It’s not even that the superback production hasn’t been matched in 2019, it’s practically been non-existent. Through five games this year, the only NU superback to catch a pass has been Charlie Mangieri, and he’s reeled in just 3 catches for 16 yards thus far.

The importance of the superback to Northwestern’s offensive production and specifically its passing offense can be felt largely beyond just last season. This statistical table from the last decade shows just how important the position has been in terms of overall receiving production.

Superback Production

Year Superback Catches Yards Touchdowns Receiving Yd Leader
Year Superback Catches Yards Touchdowns Receiving Yd Leader
2018 Cam Green 57 483 4 3rd
2017 Garrett Dickerson 38 410 4 4th
2016 Garrett Dickerson 34 318 5 4th
2015 Danny Vitale 33 355 4 1st
2014 Danny Vitale 40 402 2 2nd
2013 Danny Vitale 34 382 3 4th
2012 Danny Vitale 28 288 2 5th
2011 Drake Dunsmore 45 522 6 2nd
2010 Drake Dunsmore 40 381 5 3rd

As you can see, Northwestern has had just one season this decade where its superback failed to catch 30+ balls and 300+ yards, and that was current Green Bay Packer fullback Danny Vitale’s true freshman season in Evanston.

“It’s always been a big part of our offense when that position has earned the ball,” Pat Fitzgerald said in this week’s press conference. You go back to Drake Dunsmore, Danny Vitale, Garrett Dickerson. Those are three NFL players right there.”

Even considering the lone “down” year for NU superbacks in 2012, the “tight end” like position has been a top five pass catcher on the NU roster in every year. Thus far in 2019, Mangieri’s 16 yards rank 10th overall on the team.

So what’s going at the superback position in 2019? Why are things suddenly different this time around?

To be fair, the Wildcats are technically not at full strength at the position. Junior Trey Pugh entered the season as the most experienced superback of the bunch, but has been out indefinitely since the spring with a lower body injury. Pugh even cracked our preseason Top 10 list of most important players on this 2019 NU roster.

“I think from an experience standpoint we’re really young at the position, and I think that shows,” Fitz said. “We’ve had a lot of attrition in that room which has created a lot of depth issues.”

To address those depth issues, the team announced this offseason that defensive lineman Trent Goens and Tommy Carnifax would be making the switch to the offensive side of the ball to become two-way players. Despite Goens’ appearances in some obvious running down situations throughout the first five games, that switch has proved largely trivial for the ‘Cats offense as the true sophomore Mangieri has seen the majority of playing time at the position.

So, is Mangieri not being as targeted as much as other superbacks have been in the past?

Well, not necessarily.

In this clip from the Wisconsin game, you’ll see a 3rd and 9 play from deep inside the redzone that looks drawn up for the true sophomore.

This redzone look demonstrates that the superback has not entirely disappeared from Northwestern’s gameplan altogether. Mangieri is clearly meant to be the main target on this critical passing down inside the 15-yard line, but this play (for a number of reasons) never had a chance of being executed from the moment the ball was snapped. Sound familiar?

That being said, some other highlights show legitimate reason to question whether Northwestern’s quarterbacks see the superback as the safety blanket as they desperately look to find some sort of rhythm in the passing offense.

Mangieri did not see a single target in the Wildcats’ most recent game against Nebraska, which is a little concerning in the first place. On this play, you’ll see Aidan Smith pass up a wide open dink pass to Mangieri in the flat in favor hitting his preferred target Riley Lees on a tougher out route.

It’s hard to be too critical of Smith in this case as he ends up completing a nice throw to Lees for a solid first down pickup, but Mangieri looks as if he could have picked up the first down had the quarterback seen him in the flat coming across the line from the snap.

There is more than one problem currently facing the Northwestern offense and its painstakingly bad numerical output, but the virtually non-existent production coming from the superback room is certainly one of them.

“The room just needs to continue to be consistent fundamentally first,” Fitz said when asked about the unit’s struggles. “We expect a lot of production out of that room and we’re just not quite there yet.”