DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE PART 3: RUNNING BACKS
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 3 players
2014: Cut Grade A True Grade C
2015: Cut Grade B+ True Grade C/C-
2016: Cut Grade B+ True Grade C
2017: Cut Grade B+ True Grade B-/C+
This whole exercise may have started because of the offensive line, but the big story ended up being the running backs. The 2014 window is the perfect place to sum the situation up. Here we go…
In theory, here are the #1, #2, and #3 backs Northwestern could have trotted out that year: Venric Mark, Justin Jackson, Solomon Vault. That’s a FANTASTIC lineup. Mark earned an A/A+ from us, and he missed A+ only because of what played out at the end of his career. In all other respects, Mark is the perfect story of recruiting and development. A mid-level recruit who turned into one of the most exciting players in the country as well as an All-American.
As for Vault, he earned a B/B+: Incredibly valuable on special teams, a danger on the field at multiple positions, has battled injuries, and most likely did not hit his ceiling. It is certainly worth noting, though, that a big part of Vault’s grade comes from special teams play and that he was a receiver for part of his career–because he’s above the cut line for all four windows. We will talk much more about Jackson later.
But here’s the big buried lede: In the five-year 2014 window, in addition to those 3 players, Northwestern put SEVEN other running backs on scholarship. Included in that group are:
-Four running backs with offers from Notre Dame, Texas, Stanford, and Utah.
-Three players who eventually transferred out or left the team.
-More than one player with notable discipline/legal issues (in a program that ALMOST NEVER has these issues).
Including Mark, four of the 10 running backs Northwestern recruited over this five year period didn’t finish their careers at Northwestern. Another two eventually ended their careers at other positions, and that doesn’t include Vault, who basically only came back to the RBs in 2018 because we needed him to. That leaves a grand total of THREE running backs who went wire-to-wire at the position they were brought to Northwestern to play. One of these three had 26 career carries.
Finally, the running back who actually began the 2014 season as Northwestern’s starting running back was neither Mark, nor Jackson, nor Vault, nor any of the four players with major Power Five offers listed above. Furthermore, this player was Northwestern’s primary running back for most of the previous season.
From a top-to-bottom perspective, things actually get worse in our model in the 2015 window. The drop certainly isn’t the fault of John Moten, who now arrives in our model. However, though his time at NU has been admirable, dependable, and Big Ten Championship Game-tacular, it is not a like-for-like replacement for Mark, who now leaves the model. Northwestern also removes an additional 2010 running back from our model (a player who, like Mark, had in fact long since transferred by that point), and replaces him with another player: A diminutive wing back utilized exclusively in an sporadic jet-sweep package that is telegraphed to opposing defenses by his presence on the field.
In the final two windows, only two running backs were added. One was Jeremy Larkin, who we gave a B. This might seem like a “heart rather than the head” decision given that poor Larkin’s career lasted barely longer than a season, except: Thanks to the eye-opening lack of depth covered above, Larkin immediately became our de facto #2 running back in 2017. That season was by far the one in which the actual Cut Line within the running back corps most mirrored the theoretical one. In other words, we fielded a great starting backfield in 2017. Larkin gets points for that, for being a major recruit who looked like one, and for his excellent showing to start 2018.
By this point, however, several things should be clear to you:
1.Northwestern’s top level running back talent is as good as or better than what has been generated at any other position. The Cats have also often had a very capable backup RB.
2.Beyond those guys, this position has been a roller-coaster. Between injuries and developmental/fit issues both on and off the field, Running Back was all over the place across our model.
In other words:
THANK THE SWEET HEAVENS ABOVE FOR THE BALLCARRIER.
Running back can be a much more forgiving position to recruit and develop than offensive line. A single impact back who can stay healthy might be all you need. Thanks to Jackson’s ability to stay on the field and carry a massive load in terms of carries and receptions, the backfield often carried itself like the B+ cut grade we gave it for this entire period. Matt Macpherson absolutely gets credit for developing Jackson throughout his four years into a player who could shoulder that load and become a San Diego Charger.
But heaven help us if Jackson had gotten hurt.
BOTTOM LINE: Our analysis makes it very apparent that we need to reexamine the moving parts of Northwestern’s run game overall. Beyond the simple need for a deeper stable of backs, let’s juxtapose the running back corps with the linebackers or the defensive line–two positions that regularly mint excellence with nearly the same amount of available scholarships: