Position carousel keeps on turning at NU

Tania Ganguli

What’s the difference between a Northwestern running back and a defensive back?

Just a few years.

How do you tell a wide receiver and a running back apart?

If they’re Wildcats, you don’t.

In the position carousel that is NU football, players can’t get too comfortable, because few positions are safe.

Jason Wright was recruited as a running back, switched to wideout and then back to running back in the face of injuries at the position. Wright exploded and Walker shuffled away running backs who would lose playing time in Wright’s shadow — including redshirt sophomore Jeff Backes.

Backes, who also was recruited as a running back, switched to wide receiver, and last spring became a cornerback for good. Maybe.

In the spring Backes joked that his coach said his next position would be cheerleader.

Louis Ayeni has had almost as many position changes as he’s had injuries. He switched from running back to wide receiver a few times before being moved to defense last spring. Now he’s a safety and he gets to hit people.

“It’s a lot nicer to be the hitter than the hittee,” Ayeni said.

Sometimes during games Ayeni gets confused and finds himself standing near the offensive huddle. But you can’t really blame him — that was his huddle for three years.

“Jason Wright says (Ayeni’s) probably the best running back on the team,” redshirt running back Nathan Shanks said.

The third member of the running-back-turned-defensive-back trio is safety Torri Stuckey. Stuckey became a safety after a two-year stint at tailback.

Just like anyone else who’s ever played the position, he’s still a part of the running back family, known to those in it as “RB Roll.”

“It’s almost like a fraternity of current running backs and former running backs,” running backs coach Jeff Genyk said.

Now the three members of the secondary on “RB Roll” have become the defenders they used to try to outsmart. Although running back Noah Herron said his position is the most physically and mentally tough, Stuckey said offense is more basic.

He only had two weeks at the Cats’ preseason camp in Kenosha, Wis., to learn how to be a safety. People told him he should try to get back to running back, but he’s moved on.

“I’ve got tunnel vision,” Stuckey said. “Now I’m out there trying to hurt running backs.”

Derell Jenkins seems to have adopted Stuckey’s mentality. He saw minimal action as a quarterback last year, but in the spring Walker decided he had too many quarterbacks and moved Jenkins to the backfield. Now he won’t even go back to his high school to run quarterback clinics when his old coaches ask.

The transition was harder for Jenkins. He used to wear the quarterback’s green practice jersey, indicating that he was off limits during practice.

“Learning the blocking has been really hard,” he said. “Everyone used to always block for me.”

Other than that shifting positions is all in a day’s work for the players. In fact Stuckey and Jenkins said their high school coaches had a harder time dealing with the switches than they did. Backes pointed out that most good high school football players are running backs or quarterbacks. In college those players have to be spread out.

Still, it’s tough to be moved away from a position that gets the ball and scores touchdowns. Left tackle Trai Essex was never a running back, but when he was a tight end he at least got to move the ball around.

“You miss the fame, the glory of catching the ball, running someone over,” Essex said. “You get all the glory when the ball is in your hands.”

And at NU he just might have a chance to get the glory back.