Football: Vault, Anderson jostle for playing time at running back


Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Solomon Vault trots into the endzone for a touchdown. The freshman running back faces competition from classmate Auston Anderson in a crowded Northwestern backfield.

Bobby Pillote, Sports Editor


As spring practice draws to a close for Northwestern, very little is clear about the Wildcats’ offense heading into next season.

There still isn’t a starting quarterback, with true freshman Clayton Thorson, redshirt freshman Matt Alviti and junior Zack Oliver all alive in the competition for the job.

The offensive line is still in flux, with competitive depth at all five positions likely to keep things shifting even through the first few games of next year.

And the fight for playing time in a crowded NU backfield, once firmly controlled by Justin Jackson, has opened up thanks to a spring practice injury suffered by the star freshman.

“In the backfield right now we’ve got very good depth and very good competition,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s going to be really fun to watch (the running backs) continue to evolve.”

The two other backs vying for carries are Solomon Vault and Auston Anderson, and both are hungry for playing time after injury-marred freshman campaigns.

Vault tallied 20 rushing attempts for 81 yards and two touchdowns in 2014, and also spent time as the Cats’ primary kick returner, posting a team-best 26.2 yards per return average and taking one to the house in the season finale against Illinois.

But the speedy back also missed four contests with a muscle injury sustained against Penn State on Sept. 27, an ailment he says slowed him for the remainder of the season.

“I never really got it back 100 percent,” Vault said. “I pulled it again the Thursday practice before Iowa. … It’s never really back healthy; you have to keep working at it.”

Complicating matters is the fact that Vault was originally recruited as a wide receiver before moving to running back last year during training camp. Vault said a move back to receiver is a possibility, which isn’t necessarily negative for the number of carries he’ll get in 2015. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall is fond of calling five-wide sets that have a slot receiver shift into the backfield pre-snap.

Anderson is much more of an unknown, having spent all of the 2014 season rehabbing from a hip surgery.

“I thought I was just old, and my hip was locking up on me,” Anderson said. “Turns out I had hip impingements. … The ball was too big for the socket, so they had to shave it down.”

The Plano, Texas, native was a well-regarded recruit — he ranked the No. 17 all-purpose running back in his class, according to — and seemed recovered Saturday when he scored a touchdown in NU’s scrimmage.

Fully healthy, he’s definitely a threat to push Vault for playing time, but the two teammates are keeping the competition friendly. The pair was joking after practice about who’s faster in the open field.

“The weather has to be right, not too much wind,” Anderson said, holding back a laugh. “I’d say we’re even, but the world may never know.”

The two backs are very similar, raising the stakes for capturing the No. 2 job behind Jackson. Sophomore running back Warren Long figures to receive more of a workload next season as a bruising complement to Jackson’s shiftiness, meaning there won’t be room for a redundant role player in the backfield.

But whoever gets beaten out won’t be totally left behind. Vault enters 2015 as the presumptive kick returner, and Anderson also has the ability to split out wide as a receiver and catch passes out of the backfield.

Fitzgerald has expressed a commitment to “getting the best 11” players on the field, meaning one way or another the offense should see a generous dose of both athletes next season.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote