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May 16, 2013

Future backfield will be deep, talented

Two years ago, fomer walkon Jacob Schmidt started at running back for Northwestern and Kain Colter, a part-time quarterback who started just six games, led the team in rushing.

Don't expect either of those things to happen again anytime soon.

Justin Jackson's commitment on Tuesday, following on the heels of Auston Anderson's, gives the Wildcats a total of six backs with three-star-or-better rankings in the last three classes, and they all have four years of eligibility left.

For a program that went without a 1,000-yard rusher for five years, from 2007-11, the depth chart at running back is suddenly as deep as the school's endowment pockets. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has been focused on revitalizing Northwestern's slumbering running game and, as a byproduct of that effort, has drastically upgraded the talent level in the backfield.

The Wildcats seem to have been employing a two-step recruiting formula over these last few years: land one running back with power and another with speed. One back can be relied on to move the pile between the tackles, while the other can be used in space, as both a runner and receiver, to make the big play.

In the 2012 class, for example, Malin Jones (6-foot and 205 pounds) is the power runner and Stephen Buckley (6-0, 170), a former quarterback, the elusive burner. Both were redshirted last season.

This fall, incoming freshman Warren Miles Long (6-0, 200) is Mr. Inside, while Xavier Menifield (5-10, 190) is Mr. Outside. Even though they are close to the same size, Long is more of a punishing between-the-tackles type of back while Menifield has 4.5 speed and the ability to turn the corner.

That brings us to this year's class, which won't arrive until the beginning of the 2014 season. Anderson and Jackson both committed within the last week to give the Wildcats their most talented running back tandem yet. Jackson (5-11, 180) has the frame to add at least 20 pounds and will be more of the thunder, while Anderson (5-9, 180) will be the lightning.

Jackson, a four-star prospect and the 222nd-ranked player in the country, is the highest-rated running back of them all. He chose Northwestern over finalists Iowa and Vanderbilt, as well as Boston College, Cal, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, among others.

Anderson is a three-star from Plano (Texas) West who has the more impressive offer list. How many Texas natives turn down a scholarship offer from the University of Texas, not to mention Stanford, UCLA, Arkansas, Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU?

Both players cited the success last year of Venric Mark as a big reason for their commitment to Northwestern. Mark moved over from wide receiver and added a jolt of electricity to the Wildcat offense in 2012, rushing for 1,416 yards, the fifth-highest total in school history.

Anderson has 4.4 speed in the 40 and is both undersized as elusive as a squirrel in the open field, so he figures to take over Mark's role.

"When I went down (on a visit in April), they talked about me playing the same role as Venric," Anderson told WildcatReport after he committed. "The zone-read is where I make a living (at Plano West), and I catch a lot of screen passes and swing passes. They like to put me in space a lot, just like Northwestern does with Venric.

"I'm not on the same level as Venric, but we do a lot of the same things and have a similar skill set. We both have the explosiveness to take it to the house."

Jackson is a little harder to peg. The 2012 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year ran for 2,612 yards and 35 touchdowns last season as the workhorse running back at Carol Stream (Ill.) Glenbard North, and he thinks he can run with both power and speed, depending on what's needed.

"I see myself as a mixture of a few guys," said Jackson when asked to compare himself to Northwestern's current backs. "I have similar elusiveness as Venric, but obviously I don't have his kind of speed.

"Then there's Malin (Jones), Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green, who are bigger and more powerful. I am more in that category, but I'm a mixture. I'm not as heavy as those guys, so I have more speed and elusiveness than they do."

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall and running backs coach Matt MacPherson certainly won't be lacking for options in Northwestern's backfield of the future. For 2014, they will have Green, Jones, Long and Jackson at their disposal when they want a bigger back, and Buckley, Menifield or Anderson if they want more wiggle. And that doesn't even include 2013 class member Godwin Igwebuike, who could play either running back or safety, or 2014 commit Solomon Vault, who will come in as a slot receiver but will probably spend time coming out of the backfield, as well.

One or more of those players could move to a different position, of course, but the competition figures to be fierce regardless. In the not so distant future, it may be tougher for Wildcat backs to earn playing time than it will be to earn yards on Saturdays. The Wildcats will likely have more talent standing on the sideline than they did getting carries just a few years ago.

And that's a problem Fitzgerald is happy to have.



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