Football: Following Cam Porter’s season-ending injury, running backs ready for larger role in 2021


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Evan Hull sprints down the field. The redshirt sophomore running back will have an increased role in 2021 following Cam Porter’s season-ending injury.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor

Cam Porter was widely projected to be Northwestern’s starting running back against Michigan State after leading the Wildcats with 333 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 2020.

But throughout the offseason, Lou Ayeni noticed Porter’s fellow tailbacks didn’t “take a backseat.” They pushed him. They challenged him. They worked hard for more carries. 

This mindset gives Ayeni — NU’s running backs coach — confidence in the position group following Porter’s season-ending lower-body injury in preseason camp. 

“The only thing that changes is their roles can increase a little bit more,” Ayeni told The Daily. “Their mindset, their attitude, their work ethic hasn’t changed. They’ve gone at it every day like they’ve prepared to be the starter.” 

Last week after Porter’s injury, coach Pat Fitzgerald said redshirt sophomore Evan Hull and Porter were both ready to be the lead back. With Porter out, Fitzgerald added that Hull is ready for the responsibility of a starter. He also gave insight on the rest of the Cats’ running back rotation by mentioning Bowling Green graduate transfer Andrew Clair and freshman Anthony Tyus III. 

Each of the three backs have taken a unique path to their role. 

Heading into his third season, Hull — who Ayeni said is “waiting for his opportunity to be the guy” — has impressed coaches with his work ethic and ability to perform. Clair brings playing experience from the Mid-American Conference and a veteran presence to an underclassman-heavy position group. 

Meanwhile, Tyus arrives in Evanston as the second-highest rated running back recruit in program history and a three-time state champion at Portage Northern High School in Michigan. 

“I think we can be the catalyst of this offense,” Hull said. 

Part of that reason is because of what each of the three backs are capable of on the field. 

“One cut and go, speed, catching out of the backfield, versatility, being a playmaker, being explosive,” Hull said when asked about his skillset. “Trey’s a bigger dude. He can run through tackles. He’s got a one-cut that is just insane. Andrew, he’s a shifty dude. He can catch out of the backfield. He gives great (pass) protection.” 

Following Porter’s injury, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said the scheme will not change much, though plays may be changed to fit the ability of the runner. He added there is a next man up mentality coursing through the running back room, which players are embracing. 

Hull introduced himself to NU fans in 2019, when he rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns against Massachusetts. His highlight last season was a 149 yard, one touchdown performance in a win against Illinois.

Porter rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the same game. The two battled in practice this offseason and following his injury, Porter told Hull to not change anything since he prepared to be the starter. 

“Cam has been the one that’s made me work harder and harder every single day,” Hull said. “He continues to push me in everything that we do. We will still find a way to do that, honestly, whether it’s mental or just who knows the playbook better.”

For Clair, who rushed for 1,937 yards and 13 touchdowns with the Falcons, playing on the Cats has offered a change of pace and physicality from Bowling Green. 

As a result of being the most veteran back on the roster — current senior Isaiah Bowser and junior Drake Anderson transferred to Central Florida and Arizona, respectively — the St. Louis native believes he can use his experience to help his teammates. 

One of these players will likely be Tyus III, who has a natural ability to find openings in the defense, according to Ayeni. 

The unit’s overall talents led Clair to describe it as a “three-headed monster.” 

“A lot of teams (are) not going to be able to stop that going back-to-back, being able to rotate,” Clair said. “We got our o-line up front. I feel like nothing can stop us.” 

Having coached players such as Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery at Iowa State and Cleveland Browns tailback Kareem Hunt at Toledo, Ayeni knows how to spot a skilled runner. He believes NU’s crop of running backs contains talent. But what makes them unique is their work ethic. 

Ayeni has built successful rushing attacks in the past without the top back due to injury. While losing a player like Porter — who he called “like a Superman” because of his toughness — is a setback, Ayeni knows the opportunity at stake for Hull, Clair and Tyus II. 

He is excited to see them embrace it. 

“They get it from the beginning,” Ayeni said. “Some of the stuff that I had to teach guys by years two, three and four, these guys are doing right when they walk in the door. They’re really hard working kids.” 

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Twitter: @dschott328 

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