How deep is the depth?

How deep is the depth?

The word "questionable" appears a few times on the Northwestern injury report this week. What's more, two of the question marks are in the backfield, and one of them is next to leading rusher Stephen Simmons' name. With injuries abound, PR takes a look at how this Syracuse game could go a long way to determining just how deep the backfield is.

Northwestern's running back depth chart is looking more and more like a triage center.

Depth in the NU backfield was thought to be a strength heading into the season. A quick glance at the preseason roster showed more backs than you could count on one hand. There was ballyhooed youth (Arby Fields), an explosive receiver convert (Jeravin Matthews) and a seasoned junior (Stephen Simmons) leading the way.

The depth was obvious. So obvious, in fact, that on the Ryan Field message board, a Michigan fan even went out of his (her?) way to post a thread titled, "I desire your team's RB depth chart." Indeed, everything from common sense to opposing fans' message board rhetoric supported the idea that RB depth wasn't an issue.

Well, now we get a chance to see just how good that depth is with this weekend's game at Syracuse.

Before the season even started, redshirt freshman Alex Daniel was lost for the year with an ankle injury. That news is a few weeks old, and really, it's not too devastating; while Daniel was sure to get touches, he was never expected to be the guy for NU.

Alas, he's not the only one dinged up.

For this week's game at Syracuse, Simmons, who has emerged as the undisputed leader of the backfield, is listed as "questionable" with a leg injury, according to NU's athletic communications department.

Simmons, a junior, leads the Wildcats in pretty much every rushing category. Through two games, he has 31 carries (the next closest is 17), 150 yards (next is 78), the best yards-per-carry average at 4.8 and is tied for the team lead with two touchdowns. Last week against Eastern Michigan, he had 73 yards on just 13 carries.

And Simmons has some company on the trainer's table.

Matthews, who some people – myself included – figured would emerge as a featured back, is also questionable with an ankle injury. He missed last week's action as well, and on the year he has just three carries and 11 yards. Needless to say, he hasn't exploded out of the gates.

Supposing Simmons and Matthews can't go – or if they are crippled to the point of ineffectiveness – who's going to get touches at running back? Well, regardless of who it is, youth will be served.

Look for Fields, a freshman from California, to get a chance to run a bit in his first collegiate road game. Fields dazzled in Week 1 against Towson, scoring a pair of touchdowns – one of them a 22-yarder – on his first four carries and finishing with 48 yards on six touches.

Last week, though, was hardly as stellar. Fields finished with five yards on seven carries, good for an almost incalculable .7 yards per carry. He also coughed up a fumble deep in NU territory – the type of mistake that will bite harder on the road against Syracuse than at home against Eastern Michigan.

So while Fields has shown flashes, the freshest memories are of him fumbling and getting stuffed at the line. Against Eastern Michigan, no less.

The two other options in the backfield are Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon, both sophomores. Schimdt has the second most carries on the team with 17, and also a respectable 4.6 yards per carry. Still, he has a long of just 13 yards and – outside that 13-yarder – his line against Towson was four yards on three carries.

And in Concannon the Cats have someone who – well, let's let the NU Athletics page describe him:

Battled injuries much of the past year…Coaching staff is hoping he can get healthy and help in the kicking game and challenge for playing time at tailback… Will contribute in some capacity if healthy…

His season rushing numbers – which double as his career rushing numbers – are 15 carries for 53 yards, an average of 3.5 per carry. (Nix his 21-yard run against Swiss-cheese Towson, and that's 14 carries for 32 yards, or 2.3 per carry.)

Of course, quarterback Mike Kafka has shown he can run himself. You know the stats…Big Ten QB record 217 yards against Minnesota last season, 83 yards against Ohio State.

But now that he's the full-time starter – and not a two-week sub – the Cats and offensive coordinator Mick McCall have seemingly made it a point of emphasis to not let Kafka run too much. This season he has just 11 carries for 27 yards.

(One more thing worth mentioning: Syracuse's run D has looked pretty good. Against Akron, for example, Penn State running back Evan Royster had 14 carries for 61 yards. But against Syracuse, Royster had 12 carries for 41 yards. Last season, Royster averaged 6.5 yards per carry, but against SU, he averaged well under four.)

Maybe this is a moot discussion. Maybe Simmons will be fine come Saturday, or maybe McCall will let Kafka will run wild, or maybe Fields will look like the stud he was during Week 1.

But regardless of what happens, there are definitely some question marks heading into this game. It might well be a good test of just how good Northwestern's backfield depth really is.

To reach David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.

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