The running back situation gained little clarity last spring. After Jacob Schmidt led the unit with only 471 yards in 2011, Northwestern appeared no closer to establishing any form of balanced offense.
At that point, few expected Venric Mark to compete for the starting position – much less gain momentum in summer and run for 1,366 yards. He asserted himself as one of the best players on NU, and improved throughout the season.
In the opener against Syracuse, he impressed with his ability to make plays on the perimeter. Knowing that teams could adjust to this, the 5-8 back learned to run between the tackles, and in the process removed some pressure from the controversial quarterback rotation.
He was the first NU player to reach the 1,000-yard plateau since Tyrell Sutton in 2006. He averaged an incredible six yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns.
Even with this success, when practice begins Wednesday morning, attention will be focused squarely on the running back situation. The cornerback position will smooth itself out; one candidate should outplay the others and earn the starting position opposite Nick VanHoose.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall faces several challenges this offseason. He needs to make the frequent quarterback changes an asset, and not a hindrance. But more importantly, he will rely on the running back position to continue this solid and consistent production. Opposing defenses know who Mark is this season.
Despite the memorable 10-win campaign, there were several troubles with the offense – particularly the use of Mike Trumpy. The talented junior struggled to break through last season. He ran for 106 yards against Boston College, helping to secure the crucial early-season victory. In the win over Indiana, he ran for 87 yards. Those two outings combined for 55 percent of his rushing output last season. He never settled in.
On a bizarre number of occasions, Trumpy entered the game in third-and-short situations. The defense knew exactly what to expect. They loaded the box, Trumpy ran up the middle, and it seemed like more often than not he was stopped before reaching the first-down marker. The groans would rise from Ryan Field. They kept selling Trumpy short.
It will be necessary to include Trumpy more often this season. Mark, an undersized back, was forced to leave several games with various injuries. He piled up 226 carries last season. That number should decrease in 2013. If Mark were to suffer any sort of serious injury, it could submarine the most promising football season in recent NU history. He can still impact the game with fewer touches. Mark is the almost undisputed best punt returner in the country. He breaks off big plays, like the 48-yard score against Minnesota, during which he was hardly touched.
I can’t fathom outings like the 29-carry effort against Indiana. It’s too risky. The fragile running back – by relative standards – needs his health prioritized. And with that, other players need to show a willingness to step up. That begins in spring ball.
It seems as though Trumpy thrives on a steady diet of carries. If, like the quarterback rotation, he entered for a drive in the second or third quarter, it could wear on the opposing defense.
With the Wildcats nursing a two-point lead against Boston College and Mark sidelined with an injury, he went to work. In their first drive of the fourth quarter, he gained 29 yards on four carries, though that possession ended with a punt. After battering the Eagles’ front seven throughout the closing minutes, he broke through. With 1:37 remaining, he iced the game with a 27-yard touchdown. It was like the eventual 1,300-yard rusher had been forgotten for a moment.
Treyvon Green also expects to compete for reps. The rising sophomore suffered a concerning injury last August, and that slowed his progress. This spring, Trumpy and Green will usher in the next chapter of this running game.
Last year, the offense needed balance. This year, the running game needs balance.
Look elsewhere all you want throughout spring. I'll be watching those running backs, wondering whether last year's outburst was the start of improvement, or just an anomaly.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline