Football: “They will not stop the run”: How Northwestern’s running backs are making their presence felt in 2021


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior running back Evan Hull attempts to run through a tackle. Hull tallied 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Northwestern’s 24-6 win over Indiana State.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Northwestern started its Week Two game against Indiana State with a 12-yard rush by running back Evan Hull. The sophomore then took the next play 18 yards. Then another for eight.

Across the Wildcats’ tone-setting scoring drive on their opening possession, 10 out of 11 plays were runs. The next NU drive culminated in a 25-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Hunter Johnson to junior wide receiver Malik Washington. But 58 yards on the ground from Hull and freshman running back Anthony Tyus III set the Cats up near the red zone.

NU led the Sycamores by two touchdowns before the end of the first quarter. After losing starting running back Cam Porter to a season-ending lower-body injury, the NU running back room is establishing its identity as a unit capable of both steady production and big-play explosiveness. That all stems from a three-headed backfield of Hull, Tyus III and graduate transfer Andrew Clair

“We come with the mindset that they will not stop the run,” Tyus III said. “Smashmouth football, right down the gut, get in their faces and then just with our skill on the outside, throw it over the top — a high-powered offense that can just go off and do it all.”

Hull has embraced the starting role after showing flashes in 2019 and 2020. He’s the only tailback who entered this year with experience donning the purple and white. Despite nursing an injury entering Week 1, the Minnesotan broke off on a 49-yard dash against Michigan State in the season opener.

A week later against Indiana State, Hull took off. Hull rushed for 78 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown in the first quarter alone. He relied on on a steady diet of inside and outside zone plays, and his final stat line of 126 yards and two touchdowns underscored his emergence as a workhorse back.

Pro Football Focus graded Hull’s performance as the third-best in all of college football in Week Two, and the two-touchdown performance earned him the Wildcats’ Offensive Player of the Week.

“Everything that (Hull’s) high school coaches up there said about him, it’s true,” coach Lou Ayeni said. “His character, his work ethic is second-to-none. He has worked and turned himself into a Big Ten player.”

For a back who tantalized with 220 yards and four touchdowns against Massachusetts as a true freshman and 149 yards against Illinois in 2020, his potential as a game-changer was obvious. But Hull still says this summer is when he elevated his game, developing his physicality to prepare him for a starting role.

“Physicality was a big thing that has helped me in this process and something that Coach Lou has helped me develop a lot,” Hull said. “Just running through tackles, breaking tackles, and getting yards after contact and running within aggression and violence.”

Clair and Tyus III have embraced their roles as change-of-pace options. Clair has only had seven attempts this season, but brings experience from his four seasons at Bowling Green and an elusive “scatback” skillset to NU’s backfield. Tyus III, who enrolled early in January to acclimate to college football, showcased his powerful cuts and aggressive style against Indiana State with 71 yards on only 10 carries.

Ayeni sees a direct correlation in his unit’s behind-the-scenes efforts and its success in the Cats’ early season games.

“What you’re seeing out there in the field is the results of what they’ve been doing off the field with their preparation, the way they take care of their bodies, the way they watch tape, the way they practice,” Ayeni said. “Those guys saw the opportunity, especially with Cam going down early in camp, and have tried to take the ownership of their position group.”

It’s one thing to rack up the yards against FCS opponent Indiana State. It’s another to thrive against NU’s Big Ten opponents, who have built their reputations on playing suffocating defense.

NU still has time before playing Big Ten foes Iowa and Wisconsin. And with Duke and Ohio on the docket, the Cats’ running backs are planning on using the next couple weeks to establish their unit’s identity.

“(We are going to) figure out who we are, setting the tone only for ourselves with the world that no one’s gonna stop our run game,” Tyus III said. “People look down on our offense, but we’re gonna show them we can come out here and we can play some football.”

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