Venric Mark, Redshirt Senior
Treyvon Green, Senior
Stephen Buckley, Redshirt Sophomore
Warren Long, Sophomore
Malin Jones, Redshirt Sophomore
Justin Jackson, Freshman
Xavier Menifield, Redshirt Freshman
Tim Hanrahan, Senior
Mark returns next season following his medical redshirt. In his second chance as a senior, he's responsible for helping Northwestern recover from its messy 5-7 season. We know how effective Venric can be, pointing to his 1,366-yard season in 2012 and impressive kick and punt return skills. The major question: Which quarterback will stand next to him? That could alter how he's used out of the backfield.
Green was quietly excellent for most of the 2013 season. During non-conference play, he averaged 101 rushing yards and guided the Wildcats through adversity in Berkeley. He, too, fought through injuries, and when Venric returned he was relegated to the bench — getting only five touches in the loss to Ohio State. Still, his 736-yard, eight-touchdown year gives the team considerable depth.
Buckley served as the energy back, showcasing his potential against Iowa before losing his season to a knee injury. That happened all too often. Buckley's the clear frontrunner – at the moment – to land the starting position for 2015. He'll manage to stake out carries in next year's loaded backfield, with his speed, elusiveness and talent making him an essential weapon for offensive coordinator Mick McCall.
Long might never be the featured back, but is an ideal player for NU: He dominates on special teams, produces when needed and loves being an emotional spark. (He's also my frontrunner for the coveted No. 1 jersey.) We're not sure how he'll fit into this offense, but his mastery of the playbook and ability to exceed expectations bodes well.
Jones could return to running back, at any point, really. The redshirt sophomore switched to superback early in the year, running routes with the group and then settling in as the backup to Dan Vitale. But with Jayme Taylor – my favorite member of the 2013 recruiting class – the likely backup, Jones would be best served trying to surge up the running back depth chart.
Jackson: hype machine. The Glenbard North HS (Ill.) four-star recruit ran for more than 3,100 yards in his senior season, planting him squarely as the team's most exciting incoming recruit. I'm betting he'll redshirt next year – it only makes sense – but Jackson should be the face of Northwestern football in future seasons.
Menifield fared extremely well in scout team reps later in the season. At first, he struggled to adjust, but then quickly settled in and earned Practice Player honors. Not the biggest running back, he showed off significant burst and might still be one to watch.
Outlook: I've always wished for a more evenly distributed workload, and perhaps McCall and Pat Fitzgerald will make a greater effort to protect Venric from future injuries. More than likely, though, he'll go back to that workhorse mentality and take 65 to 70 percent of carries. I'm starting to think, too, that Buckley will step into the number two role, with Green subbing in for various drives. This one could go many ways; there's more than enough depth here.