Wide receivers helping pave way for rushing success

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

Imagine an intense Pat Fitzgerald recruiting a young wide receiver to be part of an offensive attack renowned for passing the ball.

Then imagine that receiver arriving on campus to work on their blocking.

For Northwestern’s offensive attack this season, the entire wide receiver group placed an emphasis on blocking during practice, resulting in the Wildcats’ newfound rushing success.

Last year, with then-sophomore Mike Trumpy and then-senior Jacob Schmidt handling most of the running back duties for the Cats, NU managed only 166.6 yards per game on the ground, gaining just 3.8 yards per carry. The Cats ran on 58.6 percent of their offensive snaps last season but never found consistent success.

This season, with a heavier focus on option runs, NU has its yards per carry average up to 5.1. The Cats now run for 228.4 yards per game and run slightly more often at 60.5 percent of their offensive snaps. The 19 rushing touchdowns scored in seven games this season are approaching the 25 scored all of last year.

“Since I’ve been here, it’s been something that coach (Fitzgerald) has worked on,” wide receivers coach Dennis Springer said of the option-run game. “As a crew, we take pride in (blocking). It’s a big part of our success.”

Despite all of junior running back Venric Mark’s flair and personal accomplishments, including being on pace to be the first NU player to run for more than 1,000 yards since Tyrell Sutton in 2006, a decent running attack mainly rests on the shoulders of those making the blocks, however unsexy it may be.

Fortunately for the Cats, the players who would much rather run around and catch the ball have bought into the team’s the run-first philosophy and have opened holes for their cohorts in the backfield.

“Our goal is to be the best blocking wide receiver group,” Springer said. “The improvement has been that they’ve embraced that role. Wide receivers want to run, catch balls, catch touchdowns and that kind of thing, but they’ve become an extremely physical group.”

In the game against Minnesota, wide receivers were key on many of the big runs.

On a 47-yard run into the red zone during the first quarter, sophomore wide receiver Tony Jones placed the key block.

Jones started up the field, and then ran back toward the line of scrimmage to take out a helpless defensive back, allowing Mark to turn the corner and run untouched. Jones made just enough contact while Mark was still near the line of scrimmage, but his work produced a huge play.

On the very next play, senior wide out Demetrius Fields provided the only block on a bubble screen that led to another first down. Working in the slot, Fields quickly engaged his defender off the snap, driving him backwards to create more traffic for the other Minnesota defensive backs. As a result, the wide receiver to Fields’ right could easily run toward the first-down marker.

“It’s all about your feet, your hands and your eyes,” Springer said about the group’s techniques. “You have to get yourself to the point where you are close enough to block someone, you have to have your eyes in the right place and you have to be physical with your hands.”

Even on a seemingly simple option play, as many as three wide receivers will be called upon to deliver the critical blocks to spring the run, and everyone’s techniques must be sound.

For example, on a play early in the second quarter against the Golden Gophers, Kain Colter lined up in the backfield with Mark behind him and Fields to his left. Sophomore wide receiver Christian Jones and junior wide receiver Rashad Lawrence lined up out wide to the left of the formation.

As the play commenced, Colter began to run left with Mark trailing, as Fields ran patiently up the field to find a defender. As Colter pitched to Mark, Fields took out the Minnesota safety with a devastating block, while Jones ran back toward the formation to seal the edge. As Mark turned the corner, Lawrence engaged with another cornerback, allowing Mark to pick up 9 yards on the play.

Fields needed to trust his eyes in order to find the right person to block, Jones made good use of his feet to run laterally to seal the edge and Lawrence’s physicality pushed his defender backwards to create room.

“When you see how much success we’re having, it’s hard to fight it,” Christian Jones said. “We know that the running game is going to be a big part of our offense every week.”

Jones continued on about the work that goes behind the run game each week, explaining that NU will “study linebackers and safeties” and individual preferences of players on defense.

And although blocks may not be as easily recognized as catches, yards and touchdowns, the receivers still manage to make it worthwhile.

“We have a competition going,” Christian Jones said. “We’re counting who knocks people down the most. Anything can be fun if you make it that way.”