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2021 Northwestern Football Position Reviews: Running Backs

The Incredible Hull’s breakout year powered a solid group.

NCAA Football: Ohio at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

With the dumpster fire that was Northwestern’s 2021 season in rear view, we take a look at how each of the position groups performed in the 3-9 season. Next up: the running backs.

Overall Grade: B+

When projected starter Cam Porter went down with an ACL injury before the season started, one of the major questions was how the offense could look to replace him for this season. Redshirt sophomore Evan Hull had some experience in the past, albeit mostly in garbage time or against far inferior opponents, and there were questions about whether or not he could handle a full workload. Graduate transfer Andrew Clair joined the mix from Bowling Green to take a bit of pressure off of Hull’s shoulders in what appeared to be shaping towards a back-by-committee approach. As the season developed, Hull proved well worthy of the full workload in a breakout campaign, with Clair and first-year Anthony Tyus III able to gash defenses in relief, as well.

This group gets a B+ grade largely due to the success of Evan Hull, but also because the backs performed about as well as they could have given all of the dysfunction that was happening around them. In several of its losses, Northwestern’s defense allowed it to trail big early, which led to the near extinction of the run game. It’s hard to continue justifying running the football when your team is down 21-0 in the first ten minutes of the game and your defense has shown absolutely no ability to stop a capable offense anytime in the future. Even if you look past the defense’s issues, the Wildcats struggled heavily to throw the football between their three quarterbacks this year, which consequently made it very difficult for a balanced game plan to be implemented. When the quarterbacks can’t throw beyond the sticks, it’s so easy for a defense just to stack the box and cut off the run game, too, and many of the Wildcats’ opponents took advantage of the offensive incompetence.

With that being said, the group did about as well as it could have with what it was given. Hull becoming the first running back to eclipse 1000 yards since Justin Jackson in 2017 was an accomplishment in and of itself, and his role as the most competent piece of the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten shouldn’t be taken for granted. This grade is completely independent of the other grades made so far on the site, and I believe that a B+ fits for a unit that was as good as it could have been, but not anything spectacular.

Player Grades

Evan Hull: A

Stats: 196 carries, 1,009 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns, 33 catches, 264 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns

Hull’s first two years on the team showed him little action, but lots of promise, with a 220-yard, four touchdown performance against UMass in 2019 and a 149-yard game with a touchdown against Illinois last season existing as the only real testaments to what he could do. Then in 2021, “The Incredible Hull,” as they call him (okay, fine, maybe it’s just me who calls him this), broke out. The shifty back had his biggest games against NU’s non-conference opponents early in the season, including a 216-yard, two-touchdown performance against Ohio, but still was able to contribute big games in the team’s blowout losses down the stretch, such as against Minnesota and Illinois.

As well as being a physical, bruising back, Hull found himself very useful in the passing game. He registered 264 receiving yards on the season, including 89 yards and a touchdown on six catches against Iowa. If you need any more proof as to how special this guy is, look no further than his back-to-back catches in that game that brought the ‘Cats back within reach of the Hawkeyes.

Hull’s dynamic versatility and breakaway speed brought so much to the Wildcats’ offense, as he was consistently one of the best playmakers on the team. His talent will be one of the key building blocks for Northwestern as they look to turn around the team next year.

Andrew Clair: B

Stats: 63 carries, 349 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, 10 catches, 45 receiving yards

As the second leading rusher on the team, Clair was used primarily in relief of Hull when he got tired, or in situations when the team needed some more outside speed, rather than as the leading bruiser on the inside. The Bowling Green transfer’s best game came against Rutgers, when he ran for 63 yards and his only touchdown on 13 carries. Although not super effective at being the guy for sustained periods of time, Clair was certainly solid as a second option.

Anthony Tyus III: B-

Stats: 50 carries, 210 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, three catches, 16 receiving yards

Tyus came into the program as a highly touted recruit who wasn’t expected to see much action as a first-year. Pat Fitzgerald surprised many when he decided to roll out Tyus as the starter against Michigan State over Hull and Clair, and he quickly fell in behind the two elders on the depth chart after his largely ineffective debut of 13 yards on eight carries. Tyus settled comfortably into the RB3 job over the season, appearing in Northwestern’s first eight games of the year. It’s clear Tyus has the potential to be a key player for the Wildcats in the future.

Marcus Cisco: Incomplete

Stats: Eight carries, 39 rushing yards

The sophomore saw action in just three games, logging three carries against Michigan State, two against Ohio, and three at Michigan, where he ran for a career-high 25 yards. All three touches against the Wolverines came on the final drive of the game.

Connor Newhouse: Incomplete

Stats: One carry, 25 rushing yards

Newhouse had just one carry on the season, coming on the last Northwestern drive of the 35-6 win over Ohio. The 25-yard run was on 3rd and 11 and set up fellow reserve back Jake Arthurs for the touchdown.

Jake Arthurs: Incomplete

Stats: Four carries, one yard, one touchdown

Arthurs ran in his first career touchdown from five yards out in the last minute of the win over Ohio. The rest of Arthurs’ four carries went backwards, totaling -4 yards.