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2020 Northwestern football position previews: Running Backs

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Run, Willie (and Isaiah, Drake and others) run.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially Northwestern’s summer. Spring Quarter ended last week, and it’s time to look ahead to the fall, when, despite many uncertainties and potential alterations, the college football powers that be are planning for the 2020 season. We start our summer coverage by previewing every position group on the team. Let’s start on the ground.

Overview:

Returning starters: Isaiah Bowser (Jr.), Drake Anderson (So.)

Key Losses: John Moten IV

Returners: Evan Hull (R-Fy.), Jesse Brown (R-Sr.), Marcus Cisco (R-Fy.), Connor Newhouse (R-Fy.)

Non-running back options: Kyric McGowan (Sr.), CoCo Azema (R-Fy.), Raymond Niro III (R-So.)

Newcomers: Cameron Porter

Seeing as Moten only contributed 66 total yards from scrimmage and a single touchdown in 2019 for the ‘Cats, it’s safe to say that the Northwestern rushing corps is getting back everything it had last year.

Isaiah Bowser was expected to be the lead back of the offense after breaking out for 866 yards as a freshman, all but two of which came in the last eight games of the 2018 season. Unfortunately, Bowser got banged up in the opener against Stanford and never fully regained his health in 2019. He played in only five games and finished with 204 rushing yards and no scores.

With Bowser sidelined, redshirt freshman Drake Anderson led the way last season with 634 yards, averaging a respectable 4.1 yards per carry. After a career day versus UNLV and a stat-stuffed garbage time against Michigan State, his volume of attempts and efficiency both declined.

In the final month of the season, former offensive coordinator Mick McCall experimented with a wide variety of options and actually found quite a bit of rushing success with converted receivers Kyric McGowan and Ray Niro III, defensive back Coco Azema and freshman tailback Evan Hull (though to be fair, Hull racked up 220 of his 286 yards against a UMass team that surrendered 82 total touchdowns last season).

With Mike Bajakian now at running the offense, things will likely look different. The former Boston College offensive coordinator tailored his scheme to fit Heisman candidate running back AJ Dillon, who ran for nearly 1900 yards on 5.7 yards per carry last year. The Eagles rushed twice as much as they passed in 2019. How will Coach Jake change NU’s scheme? It likely starts here.

Key Player

Isaiah Bowser

Anderson’s 4.1 YPC as a freshman going up against some staunch Big Ten rushing defenses is nothing to scoff at. But he doesn’t have the ceiling or upside of Bowser, the guy who crashed through the offensive line and put up 165 yards in the division-clinching win at Iowa.

Bowser, listed at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, is more physically imposing than the 190-pound Anderson or 192-pound Hull. The Ohio native brings the ability to bowl over defenders while not sacrificing breakaway speed. While not known for his pass-catching skills, they improved throughout his freshman season, and he logged 14 total receptions in the 15 games during which he’s seen significant time. Anderson caught all of six balls in 2019 and notably dropped a few.

Bowser has the best chance of any one in the backfield to elevate the attack to another level.

Big Questions

Who will be the lead running back in 2020?

It’s a very obvious question that is in theory supposed to be the whole purpose of this article, but one that has to be asked nonetheless. Northwestern’s rushing attack as a whole actually had one of its most efficient seasons ever under Fitzgerald on a yards per attempt basis, as the 4.1 average has only been bested by the 10-3 squads of 2017 and 2012.

But it was that lack of a lead rusher, a bell-cow back that made it all feel insignificant (that and the gross incompetence of Northwestern’s offense and predictable play calling). In order for the NU offense to rebound from a historically poor season, they need to develop a safety blanket rusher for when things get tough.

Will McGowan and Azema continue to be hybrids?

Despite only combining for 35 total carries on the season, McGowan and Azema had the two longest runs on the season for Northwestern at 79 and 62 yards, respectively. While it’s hard to envision either player taking up a full-time role in the backfield due to their other skillsets and a healthier roster, their efficiency when called upon makes it likely they could once again see carries.

Limited sample size or not, 6.3 (Azema) and 17.9 (McGowan) yards per carry are simply too high of marks to be ignored. Expanding the roles of these two versatile runners should be expected.

Depth Chart:

Northwestern’s Running Backs 2020

RB1 RB2 RB3
RB1 RB2 RB3
Isaiah Bowser Drake Anderson Evan Hull
Jesse Brown Kyric McGowan Ray Niro III