Pillote: Ranking the Wildcats’ running backs

Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor

Northwestern announced Monday that former running back Darnell Autry, a key member of the 1995 team that won the Big Ten that year and went on to play in the Rose Bowl, will be the grand marshal for the annual homecoming parade. His selection is part of an effort — complete with throwback jerseys — to honor that iconic season during its 20th anniversary.

Autry, who went on to play in the NFL, stands as one of the Wildcats’ all-time great players and someone without whom NU could not have made its historic run. But is he the best ball carrier to ever wear the purple-and-white? Ahead of Saturday’s homecoming matchup with Iowa, a game that features two running backs ranked in the top 10 nationally in rushing attempts this season, we take a look back and rank the Cats’ best.

5. Venric Mark, 2010-2013

It says quite a bit about NU’s scant running back tradition that Mark is on this list, but he makes the cut because of how much he excelled as a junior in 2012. Mark ran for 1,366 yards on just 226 carries — a 6 yard per carry average — and also caught 20 passes for 104 yards, accounting for 13 total touchdowns from scrimmage. But where he really excelled was as a punt returner, averaging 19 yards on 15 returns throughout the season and running two back for touchdowns. His efforts as a return specialist were enough to earn him a first-team All American nod.

4. Justin Jackson, 2014-

As crazy as it is to have a player in his true sophomore year on the list, Jackson has already earned the spot. In his first season last year, Jackson took over for a suddenly departed Mark — he was suspended the first two games of the season and subsequently transferred — and nearly erased his memory by running for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns. So far this season he’s followed up that effort by being the Cats’ workhorse, carrying the ball an FBS-leading 150 times through six games. As long as he stays healthy, the future looks very bright.

3. Tyrell Sutton, 2005-2008

Sutton was NU’s first freshman running back to exceed 1,000 yards in a season, smashing the mark by carrying 250 times for 1,474 yards. His role as a feature back declined later in his career, with Sutton just eking out 1,000 yards his sophomore season and never surpassing the mark again, but he remained consistent as a receiver, catching a total of 149 passes for 1,244 yards and six touchdowns over his career.

2. Darnell Autry, 1994-1996

Though he played just three seasons, Autry ranks second because of how vital he was to the teams that won the 1995 and 1996 Big Ten championships. His 387 carries in 1995 ranked first in the country, and his 1,785 yards that season ranks as the second best year among all NU running backs. Despite his abbreviated career, Autry remains the third-leading rusher in Cats’ history.

1. Damien Anderson, 1998-2001

Nobody beats Anderson in terms of statistical achievement. His 2000 season is the best all-time by an NU rusher, with Anderson carrying 311 times for a staggering 2,063 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also holds the Cats’ career records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, with 4,485 and 38, respectively. He never played in a Rose Bowl but stands as the best running back to play at NU.

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