justin jackson.JPG
Courtesy of nusports.com

Unit Capsule

  Starters 2nd string Reserve(s) Key Departures
RB Justin Jackson (Jr) Warren Long (Sr) John Moten IV (R-Fr), Auston Anderson (So) None
SB Garrett Dickerson (Jr) Jayme Taylor (R-So) Eric Lutzen (R-So) Dan Vitale

While Clayton Thorson suffered some growing pains and the wide receivers often underperformed, Northwestern’s running backs seemed to routinely slice through opposing defenses in 2015. Northwestern’s ground game delivered throughout the season, giving the ‘Cats an edge in several closely-contested, grind-it-out games. Combined with Dan Vitale’s blocking and playmaking at the superback position, and Northwestern had a capable offense in 2015, enough to supplement an elite defense and lead the team to 10 victories.

Northwestern’s running back corps was one of the team’s best units last season and could potentially be better in 2016; all of the key backs (with the exception of Solomon Vault, who is transferring to wide receiver) will return this fall. The superbacks are a different story, however. While Garrett Dickerson and Jayme Taylor should play a big role this season, Vitale’s versatility will be sorely missed.

Upside

Justin Jackson, who single-handedly kept the offense running at time last year, returns for his junior season. “The Ballcarrier” followed up a great freshman season with a tremendous sophomore campaign. Although his rushing touchdowns were cut in half last year (10 in 2014, five in 2015), he gained nearly 300 more yards on the ground (1418). His 312 carries in 2015 were the third most in the country, behind only Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Jackson is already among the conference’s best backs and is now coming off another offseason of training, which should be a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten.

Behind Jackson are three capable backups who figure to see important time on the field this year. Warren Long rushed for 5.5 yards per carry and five touchdowns of his own in 2015, and could see more carries this year in order to lighten the load on Jackson. Both Auston Anderson and John Moten IV are in the mix for the third-string spot. Anderson had high expectations heading into last year, but had only 13 carries and 56 yards in 2015. Inside NU reported from spring practices that Moten looked like the early leader for the third running back spot, but that certainly could change and both Moten and Anderson should see some action this fall. Northwestern not only has impact talent at the running back position, but also significant depth.

Even with Vitale headed to the NFL, the ‘Cats superbacks should still be able to hold their own. Dickerson had a lot of hype heading into 2015, with Vitale and several coaches saying he seemed poised for a breakout year. That didn’t quite happen (12 catches, 124 yards), but Dickerson could take that next step this year with the starting role seemingly locked up. To this point, however, Dickerson has been a better blocker than a pass catcher. That’s where backup Jayme Taylor, who missed all of 2015 with an ankle injury, should make an impact. Whether the ‘Cats employ dual-superback sets or switch between Dickerson and Taylor, the ‘Cats look at least somewhat equipped to fill the void that Vitale leaves behind.

Downside

As good as Jackson’s 2015 was, he seemed to be called upon almost too often at times. He proved to be as durable as ever, carrying over 300 times throughout the season without missing time due to an injury. With 600 touches in his first two years on campus, however, that pace may not be sustainable; Northwestern should exercise caution and spell Jackson more often this year. Luckily, the ‘Cats have the depth to do so. If Thorson improves, the offense can also rely more comfortably on the passing game, which is another way to keep Jackson fresh.

At superback, things are more complicated. Even if Dickerson has a breakout year and Taylor is a solid target after returning from injury, replacing Vitale will be very difficult. Vitale was all over the field, used as a fullback-type blocker, an extra man on the line or a receiver split out wide. With all of the wide receiver struggles last season, it was clear that Vitale was the ‘Cats’ best receiver last year. Even if Thorson improves heading into this season, he’ll have to start 2016 without his top target.

Key Player

Justin Jackson is the easy answer here, but I’ll go with Garrett Dickerson. Even if he isn’t featured as a receiver as much as Vitale was last year, Dickerson simply needs to step up in his junior season. With uncertainty still surrounding Northwestern’s wide receivers, Thorson should still be looking at his superbacks early and often in the passing game. A productive season from Dickerson could be the difference between Northwestern’s passing game taking a big step forward or another year of Justin Jackson or bust for the Wildcats offense.

In a Sentence

The running backs are deep and talented, but replacing Vitale’s production at superback will be difficult, if not impossible.

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