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Northwestern football position reviews: Running Backs

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After getting hit with a big injury (again), the Wildcat backfield showed potential from a variety of sources.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

With our postseason coverage starting a bit early this year, it’s time to give out some individual grades and a small look at what’s to come in the 2020 season. We’re going to evaluate each position group as we deconstruct what went wrong for the ‘Cats this year. Next up is a running back group that had a unique year.

Overall Grade: B

The Wildcats had a serviceable running back group, but injuries plagued the unit all year. Without a bell cow back, it was tough for any individual member to really establish themselves.

Player Grades

Isaiah Bowser: B-

Stats: 59 attempts, 204 yards, zero touchdowns

Bowser started the season as the clear No. 1 back, but a lower body injury sustained in the Stanford game put a real damper on his second-year campaign. The knee injury lingered all season, limiting Bowser to five games of action against Iowa, OSU, MSU, Wisconsin and Stanford.

When he played he looked banged up, and he played against five good defenses. It’s hard to grade Bowser after an injury in which he didn’t get a shot to show what he is capable of, but with a few explosive runs when he did play, including a 16 yard run against OSU, Bowser certainly earned a pass at a minimum.

Drake Anderson: B-

Stats: 154 attempts, 634 yards, three touchdowns

When Bowser went down, Anderson got the chance to step up. The redshirt freshman played in all 12 games, but was unable to cement himself as a clear starter going forward. Anderson had seven games in which he had 13 or more carries, and only managed to surpass 80 yards in three of these games, one of which was against UNLV, a game in which he ran 26 times for 141 yards and a touchdown.

With that said, after Anderson showed what he was capable of against the Rebels, with NU’s continuing struggles at QB, opposing defenses began planning for him, and he suffered from the ‘Cats’ inability to throw the ball, getting swallowed by opposing defenses that knew the run was coming.

When he wasn’t stuffed at the line, Anderson showed that he can really be a playmaker, though he still has a long way to go when it comes to pass-blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield if he wants to be a true #1 running back.

Kyric McGowan: B

Stats: 28 attempts, 177 yards, one touchdown

The junior spent most of the season at WR, but got some reps in the backfield before being sidelined with an injury. He was understandably raw at running back, but showed a tremendous capability of making explosive plays and using his speed. The highlight of his year was a 79 yard touchdown run against Purdue.

McGowan has a long way to go, but early returns prior to his injury were certainly positive. It will be interesting to see whether he returns to wide receiver or sticks at running back after coming back from injury.

Jesse Brown: B+

Stats: 21 attempts, 127 yards, zero touchdowns

The junior played four games on the season, against Minnesota, Stanford, UNLV and Indiana. He too was plagued by injuries, hurting his hand after getting the start against UNLV. When Brown did play, he played well, but he didn’t get enough playing time to truly establish himself. If he can stay healthy next year, he can be a valuable weapon for whoever ends up at QB for the ‘Cats, especially as a do-everything third down option.

John Moten IV: C+

Stats: 14 attempts, 29 yards, one touchdown

Moten had five receptions for 37 yards and 14 carries for 29 yards, finding the end zone once on the season. The senior retired on November 12th. While his stats only earn him a C+, Moten’s career as a Wildcat (and mainly that run in last year’s Big Ten Championship) earns him an A+ in fans’ hearts.

Evan Hull: B+

Stats: 45 attempts, 181 yards, four touchdowns

Hull was redshirted this year, appearing only against Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska and UMass. He had his breakout game against the latter, where he recorded all four of his scores. As good as he looked against the Minutemen, he didn’t impress too much against the Big Ten opponents. Hull will get a chance to compete for a starting spot in his redshirt freshman season next year.

Ray Niro III: Incomplete

Stats: 11 attempts, 101 yards, one touchdown

The redshirt freshman came into the season listed as WR, but recorded no receptions on the season. After playing gunner quite well for most of the season, the walk on got a chance at RB against UMass and put up 45 yards and a score on seven carries, in addition to taking four carries for 56 yards against the Illini. Niro had some bright spots, and proved himself to be a good emergency option for NU. That being said, it’s hard to make a true judgement on the primarily special-teamer.

Coco Azema: Incomplete

Stats: seven attempts, 123 yards, one touchdown

Azema burst onto the scene against Illinois in the season’s final game, taking seven carries for 123 yards, including a 62-yard dash and a 24-yard touchdown. After only playing three games on the season, it’s likely that Azema will be redshirted. He looked good against the Illini, but it was against an injured, dejected defense at a time when the game was all but over. It’s hard to make a judgement on Azema from his seven carries, but his play was certainly encouraging.

Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Bajakian are going to have a tough offseason in the backfield, but in a good way. With Anderson and Bowser both looking like starter caliber backs, and Brown, Azema, Hull and Niro all showing flashes, Northwestern has a plethora of talent at running back, and will have the luxury afforded by plenty of choice next to the quarterback during the 2020 season.