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2023 Northwestern football position reviews: Running backs

This time around, it wasn’t as much of a one-man show.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Utah at Northwestern Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As Northwestern’s improbable season has officially come to a close, Inside NU will spend the next few weeks wrapping up our coverage of the 2023 football season. Yesterday, we started our review of each position group with the quarterbacks. Today, we move onto the running backs.

Overall Grade: B

I know this is the same grade the position received last year, even though the ‘Cats collectively rushed for fewer yards this season. I wasn’t particularly impressed or disappointed by the running backs, who didn’t necessarily shine on a team with better options elsewhere on offense. However, the fact that this was a collective effort rather than a one man show – and that there were vast improvements by multiple players who struggled last year – keeps the B rating intact.

Evan Hull was the only trustworthy source of offense for the ‘Cats last season, a predicament that seemed to evaporate with an improved group of skill players. The additions of Ben Bryant, AJ Henning and Cam Johnson through the transfer portal lessened the burden on the running attack, as Northwestern’s offense was better able to move the ball down the field without constantly relying on the run.

Northwestern’s group of running backs fall into a category in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The individual players each met or surpassed initial expectations, but their collective numbers pale in comparison to fellow Big Ten teams. NU finished 13 out of 14 in the conference in rushing yards per game and near the back of the pack in most other measurements as well. That calculation could be inaccurate due to the inclusion of non-running backs such as Brendan Sullivan, A.J. Henning and Jack Lausch, but the trio of Cam Porter, Tre Tyus and Joseph Himon II would likely fall near the bottom regardless.

Porter was the bell cow of the group, receiving the vast majority of carries. In the Mike Bajakian-led offense, Porter carried the load on first and second down, attempting to set up for potential passing conversions on third down. As many know, that gameplan was not an overwhelming success, and made the offense predictable and unpalatable at times. The clock is ticking on Bajakian’s inevitable departure, a move that should hopefully lead to greater diversity in offensive creativity and play-calling in the future.

Tyus and Himon each played a distinct role in the offensive operation as well. Tyus served as an efficient secondary back to Porter, while Himon’s speed and agility contributed to his success in the passing attack. Both should have enhanced responsibilities next season and improve upon the strides they made this year after falling short of expectations in 2022.

Player Grades

Cam Porter: B

Stats: 166 carries, 651 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns, 121 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown

After acting as Hull’s backup last season, Porter finally regained the starting position he held prior to tearing his ACL in 2021. Porter certainly didn’t mirror Hull’s success, but still proved the most productive and capable halfback on the roster. He improved his numbers from last year, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and 50 per game — up from 3.3 and 26, respectively. The latter surely rose due to increased play time, but the former is a notable boost independent of Porter’s increased snap count.

Porter started slowly, rushing for only eight yards on the ground against Rutgers with a few receptions to his name as well. He quickly gained steam, however, putting up one of his more impactful performances of the season with 104 yards from scrimmage against UTEP. After a string of reasonably average performances against Duke and Minnesota, Porter’s production became very inconsistent, with a mix of good, bad and mediocre games to round out his likely final season in Evanston.

One of Porter’s most prominent games of the season came in Northwestern’s bowl-clinching victory over Purdue, in which he matched his yards total from the UTEP game. He made contributions early on, punching in a seven-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter, setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon. In the fourth quarter, Porter made his biggest play of the season, rushing for a 34-yard score to secure his second touchdown and put the game out of reach for the Boilermakers.

Porter will undoubtedly be missed on this Northwestern team. He was a consistent presence on the field and held onto the ball, having never committed a turnover this season. Yet, he also lacked the explosiveness and vigor possessed by others on the roster, keeping him from being a game-changer and making many impact plays. He receives a B for simply meeting expectations, unlike his two teammates I’ll discuss momentarily.

Anthony Tyus III: B+

Stats: 50 carries, 238 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, 16 receiving yards

Tyus had a sophomore slump in 2022, receiving the lowest grade of a C for Inside NU’s ratings last season. This year, he experienced somewhat of a junior jump while backing up Cam Porter. The most sizable improvement came from Tyus’ massive increase in average yards per carry, rising significantly from 2.9 to 4.8, the highest on the team.

He didn’t record a carry until the late September blowout loss to Penn State, but his impact only grew from there. Against Howard, Tyus rushed for 44 yards and followed that up with a 63-yard showing two weeks later against Nebraska. He also played a significant role in the regular-season finale against Illinois, rushing for 45 yards and a score to help Northwestern reclaim the HAT for the first time in three years.

While Tyus thrived on the ground, he had minimal impact in the passing game. He recorded a total of 16 receiving yards on the season, a number among the lowest of anyone on the team. This was actually a decrease from his already low 49 yards from last year, a further indication of Tyus’s complete inaction in the aerial attack. That’s something Tyus will certainly look to improve as he prepares to potentially take on the starting role in 2024.

Joseph Himon II: B+

Stats: 35 carries, 136 rushing yards, 219 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown

If there’s one word that adequately describes Himon, it’s explosive. His sophomore season was a vast improvement after having minimal impact as a first-year. Himon doesn’t mainly receive his B+ for averaging 3.9 yards per carry, though. It primarily comes from his elusiveness and ability to get into open space, which could be seen frequently. An 85-yard touchdown reception off a screen against UTEP proved crucial in Northwestern’s first win of the season, and a similar 53-yarder against Maryland provided a massive spark in what became one of the more noteworthy victories of the year.

Himon also impressed against Big Ten West opponents Wisconsin and Minnesota, but his production was sporadic beyond his four impactful games. He was almost nonexistent in many of NU’s other contests, which must be improved with his role set to expand in his junior season with the ‘Cats.

Jake Arthurs: Incomplete

Stats: four carries, 11 rushing yards

There isn’t much to say about the senior hailing from nearby Wheaton, Illinois. After not seeing the field in 2022, Arthurs got minimal action this season, registering only 11 yards on the ground in two games against UTEP and Penn State.

Caleb Komolafe: Incomplete

Stats: four carries, nine rushing yards, 33 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown

It was a quiet season for the first-year from Texas. The highlight for Komolafe was a receiving touchdown he caught in the dying moments of the season opener against Rutgers, giving the ‘Cats their first and only points of that game. However, the future does look bright for the young running back. Expect increased production in 2024 with Cam Porter presumably out of the picture.