Our Big Ten previews in the rearview, we’ll take the next two weeks to preview every Northwestern position group.
While there is plenty of uncertainty at quarterback, Northwestern knows they have options aplenty at the other spot in the backfield. Our Will Greer breaks down the running backs.
The running back position is one of the more stable groups for a Northwestern offense that generally has more question marks than assurances going into the 2015 season. Sophomore Justin Jackson returns after a strong freshman campaign in which he rushed for 1187 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Wildcats’ offense will rely on Jackson’s combination of speed and elusiveness to move the ball down the field and keep third downs manageable for its quarterback unit.
But Jackson won’t be able to do it all by himself. Junior Warren Long will likely get more touches in 2015 because of his size and strength, providing a nice change of pace and a reliable third and short presence out of the backfield. And freshman Auston Anderson and sophomore Solomon Vault should get some touches when Jackson needs a breather.
The ‘Cats will undoubtedly miss the services of Treyvon Green, who rushed for 1490 yards and 13 touchdowns in his Northwestern career, but Green’s departure should open up more carries for Long and Vault and give Anderson room to grow.
This group’s upside lies in the fact that all four running backs have a clearly defined role. Jackson is the prototypical starting running back, Long is the third and short power running back, and Anderson and Vault are the young back-up running backs that will give Jackson quick rests throughout a game. All four players should know what is expected of them and what their role is going into the season, which should help to provide stability and consistency in the ‘Cats’ backfield.
Although there is a ton of potential in Long, Anderson and Vault, all three running backs have yet to prove they can consistently contribute to the Wildcats’ offensive cause. Long was solid in games at Penn State and at Iowa last season, rushing for a combined 104 yards on 20 carries, but he was a non-factor in every other game, as his 5-rushing yard effort against Wisconsin was his next highest yardage total of the season. Vault only carried the ball four times in the ‘Cats’ final nine games after sustaining an injury in late September. And while the coaching staff is excited about Anderson, the freshman has yet to play a second of college football and will surely take some time to adjust. The pieces are in place for this unit to be successful, but the weight on Jackson’s shoulders could get much heavier if Long, Anderson and Vault fail to perform early on.
Justin Jackson. And it’s not even close. In five Northwestern wins last season, Jackson averaged 120 rushing yards per game. In seven Northwestern losses, he averaged just 84 yards. The sophomore should be handed the ball 25 to 30 times per game and will be relied upon to keep the offense in manageable second and third down positions. If Jackson can’t build on a breakout 2014 season, Northwestern’s offense could be in jeopardy of statistically finishing near the bottom of many Big Ten offensive categories in consecutive seasons. Young and inexperienced quarterbacks rely on consistent and reliable running backs to move the ball down the field, and Jackson will need to be just that if this Northwestern offense wants to be successful in 2015.
In a Sentence
The running back unit has the potential to be Northwestern’s most impressive and reliable offensive unit, but its success will depend on both Jackson’s continued emergence and the help that the speedy sophomore gets from a diverse group of reserves.