Halfbacks: running wild

Colin Becht and Colin Becht

When Northwestern takes the field on Sep. 4 at Vanderbilt, it has already been decided that rising junior Dan Persa will be taking the snaps. But who Persa will be handing the ball off to remains in question.

In one of the most closely contested position battles of the spring, four running backs-sophomore Arby Fields, juniors Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon, and senior Stephen Simmons-are all competing for the right to be the Wildcats’ primary option.

All four players shared the workload last year, but Fields led the team with 302 rushing yards. Still, coach Pat Fitzgerald is far from naming a starter.

“I’d love to have a guy take over the role, but that’s going to be determined on the field,” Fitzgerald said. “I like what the group is doing right now. I really do. And we’ll see how it plays out.”

From 1996 until last season, NU’s offense has featured a go-to back who rushed for around 1,000 yards. That string of great running backs includes Darnell Autry, Damien Anderson, Jason Wright, Noah Herron and Tyrell Sutton.

The Cats were without a feature running back last year, instead employing a “running back by committee” approach. Concannon, Simmons and Schmidt all finished less than 100 yards behind Fields, racking up 241, 233 and 217 yards, respectively.

Despite lacking a star in the backfield, the Cats still amassed more than 1,500 yards on the ground, which helped them win eight games and make a bowl game for the second consecutive season.

Given last year’s success, NU proved it may not need a feature back to be successful. Aiding the success of the ground game was the mobility of Mike Kafka, who was the Cats’ second-leading rusher with 295 yards. A dual-threat quarterback is a resource the Cats will have again with Persa under center.

“It gives you more options,” running backs coach Matt MacPherson said. “It gives you more possibilities. In some ways it’s better for the back because the defense can’t key in on him. Now it takes away probably some carries from him, but it gives you more weapons, more options.”

Fields agreed with MacPherson’s assessment that a mobile quarterback removes some of the focus on the running back.

“It takes pressure off the running game, because they’ve got to worry about the quarterback running and the running back running,” Fields said.

MacPherson said although he would like to name a No. 1 running back this year, the Cats may employ the committee of backs again if no one earns the role.

“If somebody takes the job, sure . . . but somebody has to step up and do that,” MacPherson said. “We’re not going to have a feature back so everybody can say, ‘Well this guy is your one back.’ Somebody has to go and take the job.”

Fitzgerald said taking the job will involve more than just skills carrying the ball, such as contributing to the passing game.

“You’ve got to be able to protect, you’ve got to be able to run the ball, and you’ve got to be able to catch,” he said.

Last year, NU backs combined for 41 receptions, one less than wide receiver Sidney Stewart, who had the fourth most receptions on the team.

“In the pass game, we split them out so much, they have to be able to run the routes and catch the ball, and they have to be able to pass protect,” MacPherson said. “If you can be a complete back and you can do all three, then you become a guy who stays on the field most of the time.”

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall said that ven if NU does establish a feature back, the Cats will still need to have several backs prepared to carry the ball.

“There’s going to be times when somebody gets hurt. So who’s going to step in? And who’s going to step in after that?” McCall said. “And somebody’s going to get tired. As fast as we go, they can’t go 120 plays through a whole entire game and be the guy.”

Through the first three weeks of spring practices, Fitzgerald said he was happy with the play of his running backs.

“It has been great. The way that group has played has probably been the most consistent across the board of any position on our team right now,” Fitzgerald said. “So I’m pleased with it.”

Though he is still far from committing to a running back, Fitzgerald said he had noticed some standouts thus far.

“I’ve liked the way that Arby has played,” he said. “I’ve really liked the way that Jacob has come back from his injuries and bumps and bruises.”

MacPherson said he believed Fields had made great improvements since the end of last season.

“Arby has gotten a heck of a lot better than he was last year,” MacPherson said. “He has improved the things that I asked him to improve on.”

NU might not need a feature back­­ – but if they do, Fields thinks he knows who it might be.

“Coach is saying now that he wants one guy,” Fields said. “He’s looking for one guy to carry the load and to take over the running back spot. That’s been my goal the whole spring-to be that guy.”

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