Erryn Cobb, a tight end and fullback who notched a total of 94 all-purpose yards during his career at Northwestern, changed the Wildcats’ offense forever.
When offensive line coach Adam Cushing was hired in 2004, his title was tight ends/h-backs coach. That same year, Cobb, who had played linebacker the two previous seasons, switched over to offense and joined Cushing’s crew. The coaches were immediately impressed with Cobb’s athleticism.
“He was the first guy that was able to line up as a fullback, line up as a tight end on the line and motion around and play in space a little bit,” Cushing said. “Then each guy that we’ve recruited we’ve tried to find somebody that has multiple talents.”
Cushing, along with offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and coach Randy Walker, decided to mold a new position around multi-dimensional players like Cobb.
“We had some young men who had a bunch of different talents,” Cushing said. “So rather than try to confine them to just doing one skill, it makes it difficult for a defense to prepare for a player who can do a bunch of different things.”
That’s when NU’s superback position was born.
This year, the superbacks come in all different shapes and sizes: from those in the mold of a traditional fullback, 6-foot, 230-pound Mark Woodsum, to those in the mold of a traditional tight end, 6-foot-6, 265-pound Josh Rooks, to those in the middle, 6-foot-3, 235-pound Drake Dunsmore. As they are asked to do different things on offense, each uses his frame to his advantage.
“To me, it’s the best position on the field because you get to do a little bit of everything,” Cushing said. “You get to block, you get to catch the ball, you get to play out in space a little bit. You get to fully enjoy the game of football.”
In 2009, the superbacks have put the “super” back in the position. Last year, the unit combined for nine catches for 52 yards and three touchdowns. This year, the superbacks have totaled 28 catches for 304 yards and two touchdowns. Much of the improvement is due to the return of sophomore Drake Dunsmore. After an impressive freshman year in which he caught 11 passes for 141 yards and was named to The Sporting News’ Freshman All-Big Ten team, Dunsmore was sidelined for all of last year with a knee injury. So far, Dunsmore is second on the team with 21 catches for 232 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s a natural,” said Woodsum of Dunsmore. “We use him a lot in the pass game. He’s also a big, physical blocker, so we can bring him in and also do a lot in the run game.”
Woodsum, a former walk-on, is the only superback who has been used as a fullback. The Arlington Heights, Ill., native leads the group with 17 yards on the ground this season. Woodsum has also shown his prowess as a blocker, recording a key block on Minnesota cornerback Marcus Sherels during Arby Fields’ touchdown run last week.
“Obviously (Woodsum) is more in the fullback mode,” Cushing said, “But as you have seen in the last couple weeks, he has been able to split out and do some things, go play out in space when we want to block in space and when we want to do some screens.”
While no other superback has put up receiving numbers like Dunsmore’s, the Cats tend to call on them in important goal line situations. Against Iowa in 2007, Woodsum notched a two-yard touchdown grab late in the first quarter to put the Cats ahead 14-0. Last year against Minnesota, Rooks made a two-yard touchdown catch that gave NU the lead midway through the second quarter. Against Minnesota last week it was senior Brendan Mitchell’s turn to step up. On a fourth-and-two from the Minnesota 13, Mitchell broke away from the line and made a juggling catch to put the Cats ahead going into the fourth quarter.
“The guys are just doing a great job,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We knew when we recruited them that they would be playmakers and that they would just continue to work and evolve into our offense. To be in our offense, you have to be in the top 11, and we’ve had multiple guys in that superback group step up, and I’m just very pleased with them.”