Position Preview: Running Back
By Kevin Sweeney
Attributing Northwestern’s offensive struggles of a season ago to one factor is a mistake. Injuries, poor QB play and poor play-calling all led to the disaster that was 2019 for the ‘Cats. That said, Northwestern’s best avenue to move the ball last season was on the ground, even with injuries to Isaiah Bowser that left one of the team’s brightest offensive talents sidelined for most of the season. Generally though, it’s difficult to run the ball effectively when the defense doesn’t respect a quarterback’s ability to hurt them through the air. An improved offense under Mike Bajakian and improved quarterback play with Peyton Ramsey under center could be the rising tide that lifts all boats, including elevating a running back room that had to scrap for everything it had last season into one of the Big Ten’s best units. Let’s get into Northwestern’s running back room:
The Starter: Isaiah Bowser
Isaiah Bowser’s sophomore season was essentially eliminated due to injuries, but by playing in five games he lost the ability to redshirt and maintain the year of eligibility. It’s unfortunate that Bowser never got the chance to run behind an offensive line that improved mightily as the season went on, as I believe his physicality would have played well in the power running scheme that the ‘Cats ran late in the season with Andrew Marty at quarterback.
Without knowing exactly what Bajakian’s offensive scheme will look like, it’s hard to know how anyone really fits in. However, if the first-year OC designs an offense similar to the one he ran at Boston College last season, Bowser is the clear choice to be the featured back. And if he’s featured the way BC star AJ Dillon was, Bowser could have an all-Big Ten season.
Bowser has some similar qualities to Dillon as a back — he’s a prototypical “north and south” runner who doesn’t shy away from contact and always falls forward. Bowser may not have the vision that Dillon has, but he’s a workhorse willing to tote the rock 30 times a game if needed. Northwestern’s running back room is deep enough that carries may be split more evenly, but I do believe a 1,000-yard season is in Bowser’s sights.
In the Mix: Drake Anderson and Evan Hull
Anderson showed plenty of promise early in his redshirt freshman season, but really faded down the stretch. Still, he is the team’s most productive returning rusher and brings something different to the table than the majority of this stable of backs: speed. I referred to Bowser as a pure “north and south” runner — Anderson is the opposite. He has a wide array of jukes and spins in his arsenal that allow him to evade much bigger tacklers and keep his feet charging forward. However, he’s not big enough nor consistent enough to be a top option out of the backfield. The question is how Bajakian can utilize his skillset as one of the offense’s more dynamic playmakers. Getting Anderson more involved in the screen game, perhaps splitting him out wide in the slot and running sweeps for him, with the occasional inside run out of the shotgun seems like a role Anderson could thrive in.
On the other hand there’s Hull, who played the maximum four games allowed to still take a redshirt in his freshman season. Thanks to a 220 yard, 4 TD outburst vs UMass, Hull actually finished the season second on the team in rush yards and tied for the team lead in touchdowns. It’s hard to take stock in that performance given how porous the UMass defense was, but it was far from a normal performance for a true freshman getting his first real action. Hull is an all-purpose back, possessing enough speed and agility to turn the corner or be used as a pass-catcher but also enough power to run between the tackles. If effective, he might challenge Bowser for carries.
X-Factors: Jesse Brown and Coco Azema
Brown’s career has been riddled with injuries, but it was especially heartbreaking to see him go down after the best game of his career against UNLV in September. It’s hard to count on him staying healthy, but like Hull, his combination of speed and toughness makes him an intriguing player if he can stay on the field. He’s also in a band, which is fun!
Azema is the final name I’ll highlight, and it’s quite possible he doesn’t take a single hand-off this season. Why? Well, he’s a defensive back. However, he was thrust into action on offense in the team’s season finale at Illinois and looked quite the natural. He amassed 123 yards on just 7 carries, and may have ended the life of an Illini defender in the process. Indications have been that Azema will return to the defensive backfield this fall, and he’ll have a chance to crack the playing rotation in a unit with lots of question marks. But if the ‘Cats need a spark, bringing an athlete like Azema back to the offensive side of the ball might not be the worst idea.
The Bottom Line:
Running back is definitely Northwestern’s deepest skill position, and it’s likely that Bajakian’s offense will emphasize the run this season. Isaiah Bowser is the clear choice to start, but Bajakian has options and depth to give teams different looks. An offensive line that returns four starters should create plenty of holes, but steady QB play will be critical in opening up more explosive plays for this talented unit.