Football: Northwestern hoping to diversify rushing attack in 2016


Daily file photo by Jacob Swan

Justin Jackson carries the ball. The junior running back was third in the nation in 2015 with with 312 carries.

Ben Pope, Reporter


After just two seasons, junior running back Justin Jackson already ranks seventh in Northwestern history in rushing attempts.

His 312 carries in 2015 ranked third in the nation behind only Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (Alabama) and runner-up Christian McCaffrey (Stanford). Over the Wildcats’ final four regular-season games, Jackson toted the ball 124 times, more than the team’s second and third-leading rushers — Warren Long and Solomon Vault — combined for over the entire season.

As the upcoming 2016 season creeps closer, NU is seeking to keep up the heated spring camp competition. A pair of incoming recruits will boost the depth at running back, helping give Jackson more rest next autumn.

We’d love to,” running backs coach Matt MacPherson said about balancing the workload. “The other guys have to step up. Part of our conversations that we had was, ‘If you guys want to be more involved in the offense, you have to prove that you’re ready.’ For the most part, they did that this spring.”

With Vault transferring to wide receiver and Long recovering from end-of-season surgery, a cast of lesser-known names dueled for touches during spring practices.

Sophomore Auston Anderson, who rushed 13 times for 56 yards last season, made a strong case for a much larger role moving forward with his spring performance, MacPherson said. The undersized speedster described himself as the “lightning to the thunder” of Jackson and Long and could inherit Vault’s role as the quick, shifty complement to NU’s traditional power-rushing style.

“From my performance this spring, it’s going to a bigger role,” Anderson said. “If we run it like last year, we’re all going to be tired. They’re going to find a way to put us all on the field.”

Anderson’s competition with 2015 redshirt John Moten IV for change-of-pace back duties is a key to growing the positional depth, coach Pat Fitzgerald said. The additions of incoming freshmen Jeremy Larkin and Jesse Brown to the unit later in the offseason will also add to the number of faces fighting for playing time, although Larkin and Brown currently seem destined to redshirt.

MacPherson said the unit primarily focused on improving in two critical areas during spring practices — ball security and pass blocking — while trying to sort out next year’s positional hierarchy.

“They can’t take a day off, they can’t take a practice off, when they know that there’s another really good player that’s looking for reps as well,” MacPherson said. “That’s how you build a program … that continues to grow because you’re constantly fostering competition.”

Meanwhile, Long, whose five rushing touchdowns in 2015 tied with Jackson and sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson for the team lead, missed the entirety of spring team practices in surgery recovery. He said he’s been unable to practice his footwork and conditioning but has been working in the weight room and should be able to return to non-contact drills in two weeks.

“I just want to get back more than ever now,” Long said. “You savor it because it’s taken away from you.”

Even with all of the commotion going on lower on the depth chart, NU’s starter duties remain fully espoused to Jackson, who topped 1,400 rushing yards last year, marking only the fifth time in school history that total was eclipsed.

He took on a much smaller workload during spring camp in order to recuperate from the brutally taxing season but said his body recovers quickly and he feels the best that he has in a while. He’s still been working with the other backs, monitoring their development, and said he’s hopeful their growth will allow the carries to be more balanced next season.

“I’m really excited about our running back group,” Jackson said. “We’re going to be an essential part of our offense and one of the best in the Big Ten.”

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