There’s an interesting thread on our insider board right now debating what is the ideal number of touches per game for Venric Mark this fall. While we obviously won’t get much closure on that until we know (at the very least) how Mark holds up in pads, I do think it’s a worthwhile discussion. Northwestern seems adamant about installing high-tempo short passing to correct its offensive woes, but the real key to improvement lies in forcing opponents to respect the run and offering a diverse ground game.
Both were damn near impossible last year when the team limped down its depth chart to, at one point, the No. 6 running back. But with Mark back and Treyvon Green and Warren Long completely healthy, the Wildcats can tout a dangerous running game that rotates faster personnel to mask a shoddy offensive line. The key, as most responders on this thread have pointed out, is to avoid over-reliance on Mark. I believe the best possible NU running game is one that gives touches to five separate backs each night. Subtracting the 163 keepers taken between Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian last season, the Wildcats still gave backfield rushers more than 28 carries per game.
Believe it or not, Mark averaged fewer than 19 touches a game in his All-American campaign, and got 20 carries in just four of 13 games. There’s no reason for a 5-8 running back who hasn’t played a full game in 18 months to see heavy involvement in non-conference matchups, and even when Big Ten play resumes, Mark would be best off hovering around 14-17 total touches. Interestingly enough, that 2012 season also saw him record two or fewer catches in all but one game (he caught seven balls against Boston College), and Mark has only recorded three receptions greater than 10 yards in his career.
Best guess: 17 touches
Green has been criminally under-appreciated this offseason, and his eight touchdowns on a 5.4 yard-per-carry average commands at least a few carries between the tackles. Green wasn’t nearly as prolific going sideline to sideline last year, but taking a half-dozen runs through the middle of a defense will keep linebackers honest — especially important given Northwestern’s interest in expanding the short passing game and getting Dan Vitale more involved early. He’s also an improving pass blocker.
Best guess: 5 touches
The staff is high on Long, who saw a career-high six carries against Illinois last November. NU gave him carries even when Green and Stephen Buckley were healthy, and Fitzgerald has praised his progress all offseason.
Best guess: 3 touches
Buckley’s been held out of practice this summer, but he is expected to return by Week 1. I think he will be the team’s third option by the end of the year, and offers the receiving prowess missing with Mark and Green. Buckley busted receptions of 17 and 14 yards against Nebraska and Western Michigan, respectively, and at 6-0, he could sneak into the slot on spread sets.
Best guess: 3 touches
Fitz said that he expects a core of three — Green, Long and Buckley — to take substantial carries from Mark, but I also expect at least one freshman running back to burn a redshirt. Justin Jackson has been fielding passes in practice thus far, and Fitzgerald told reporters to keep an eye on Solomon Vault from the first day of camp. Both offer needed flexibility in the receiving game, and though Jackson only put up 220 receiving yards to his 3,100+ rushing yards at Glenbard North last fall, I expect him to adapt his game to see the field this season.
Best guess: A combined 3 touches