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March 30, 2010They're not exactly the Four Horsemen from that school in South Bend, but Northwestern returns a quartet of running backs -- Scott Concannon, Arby Fields, Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons -- with starting experience for the 2010 season. While Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden shared carries in 1924 for Notre Dame, the Wildcats are looking for a single back to shoulder the load.
And with spring practice underway, that's exactly where running backs coach Matt MacPherson is focused.
"Before anything, we have to figure out what our depth chart is," MacPherson said. "Even in year two with having the same guys, it's still in flux. I'm looking for somebody to take it over. I don't want a guy that I have to take out on third down. I want a guy who can play three or four downs for us."
No single player took over the starting spot left by four-year starter Tyrell Sutton last season. Northwestern struggled to establish a consistent running threat throughout much of 2009, shuffling the starting position between four players. Concannon, a junior, started the last five games of the season, including the 2010 Outback Bowl. Fields and Simmons started three games each, while Schmidt started two. The group combined to rush for 993 yards.
The lack of a reliable ground game came to a head in Northwestern's 24-14 road loss to Michigan State when the backs combined to rush eight times for 34 yards. After the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald said the following about his unconventional offense: "It obviously needs to be improved. As ugly as I am, I'm not the smartest guy in the shed right now. So if we can't run it then I'm not going to keep running it and just say, 'Gosh darnit I'm going to run the ball.' I want to win, so we're going to do whatever we have to do to find a way to win. If that means we have to throw it 175 times in a game, then that's what we'll do."
Fitzgerald stuck to his guns in the Outback Bowl, passing an earth-shattering 81 times and running just 39 times. The numbers were more staggering in the second half and overtime, when Northwestern called designed runs on just six of 64 plays.
What went wrong in 2009? MacPherson wouldn't pinpoint one issue that plagued the team's rushing attack, though nine different offensive linemen received significant playing time. But MacPherson is looking for the best running back regardless of who's blocking up front.
"I want the running backs to do their part and then a little bit more; that's how you become a special player," MacPherson said. "I can get what's blocked-My fat butt can get a five-yard run if it's blocked. A running back is supposed to go make that five a 10-, 15-yard gain."
Regardless of the struggles last year, MacPherson is confident his position group will improve in 2010: "It will be better, there's no question about that," he said.
At Monday's first practice of the spring, Fields worked with the first-team offense at tailback and halfback. Schmidt took reps with the first unit as well, mostly flanking out as a receiver. Concannon and redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy worked with the second team. MacPherson was quick to point out he has not named a starter yet and that six players are listed on the depth chart. Not included on the list is sophomore Alex Daniel, who missed all of last season with a foot injury. Daniel has been suspended from team activities for an undisclosed reason until Sept. 5.
With several players fighting for the top spot, MacPherson said his job is simple: "Coach them all like they're going to be the starter, and then the rest will sort itself out. I'm excited about all of them, but I'm excited about the guy who's going to play."
There was a time, just two years ago, when Northwestern's media guides hinted at calling the school "Running Back U" for consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher. By comparison, the 2010 spring prospectus says "Plenty of Competition at Running Back." But is there one kind of back that fits Mick McCall's spread offense better than another?
"I don't know if there's one kind -- in this scheme, you have to be able to do a lot, a little bit of everything," MacPherson said. "Here's what I want: vision, cutting ability and acceleration. See the hole, get to the hole, get through the hole, and then the ability to make people miss. That's what we're looking for. And then with as much empty as we do, those guys have to be able to catch the ball and pass protect."
With that in mind, here are MacPherson's quick hits on what he's looking for from each running back this spring:
On Fields: "For a freshman to come in and pick up and do what we do is pretty amazing. I was very impressed with his mental capacity to do what we do, because we put a lot on the running back. Things that we talk about where he needs to go is being more vertical in his cuts. Sometimes we thought he went a little too much east and west. And being a little bit more patient. Sometimes, especially young guys, when they get the ball they want to run as fast as they can. Sometimes you need a little bit of pace to let things develop, and then when it shows itself, that's when you hit that second gear. Those are two of the things, running-the-ball-wise, we really want him to improve on this year."
On Schmidt: "Jacob's a very solid football player. He's going to be where you want him to be and he's going to do what you want him to do. Jacob just needs to progress and stay healthy, because he's been banged up throughout his career. For him to stay healthy, that's one of the biggest things I need him to do this spring and next year."
On Concannon: "He needs to get healthy as well. Last spring he got banged up. He got a little banged up in the middle of last season. He just needs to stay healthy and be able to work day in and day out."
On Simmons: A lot like Scotty and Jacob, he needs to stay healthy. He was beat up all through the middle of the season, so I need him to stay healthy. When he's healthy, he's one of our best special teams players and one of our fastest guys. What I want most is for him is to stay healthy and compete for 15 days.
On Trumpy: Mike is running our offense for the first time since he's been on scout team. He hasn't run our offense since Kenosha, six months. For him, this is just getting back into the offense and learning what we do. He's got pure, natural, base running back skills. Now he has to fit those skills into what we do. He's one of the bigger guys (6-foot, 195 pounds) in my room.
If one player seems to have the inside track for the starter's spot, it's Fields. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound sophomore led the team with 302 rushing yards and five touchdowns last season. Fields is a physical runner and strong on his feet, but also has a quick speed burst when he touches the ball. The Alta Loma, Calif., native is approaching the spring like it's his job to lose.
"Being the starter is definitely my goal," said Fields, who doubles as NU's starting centerfielder for the baseball team. "Personally, I don't like rotating and I don't like coming out of the game. I like to be the guy in the game all the time. Whatever coach does is what he does, but I'm approaching it in my head like I'm the guy."
While Fields made an immediate impact, Trumpy redshirted the 2009 season. Rivals ranked the Wheaton North grad as the 51st-best running back nationally before he came to Evanston, though sitting out last season did not phase Trumpy.
"It gave me a chance to get bigger, stronger, faster and learn the system," he said. "In no way was I disappointed or mad or anything. Coming in, I kind of wanted to get redshirted, just another year to grow. I was perfectly fine with that, and I think it paid off."
Trumpy showed off his agility and vision in Monday's practice, making two quick shuffle steps to the right to find a hole and bursting through the line for a long gain. The team's offensive practice player of the week vs. Purdue isn't sure how much can be contribute immediately.
"Who knows? The position is up for grabs, but it's going to be tough," Trumpy said. "There are a lot of guys with a lot of experience."