Right now, speculating about a new Sutton is part guesswork, part futility.That being said…the early returns on who's next in line point to Arby Fields, a freshman from Alta Loma, Calif. Fields has yet to don a Northwestern jersey for real, but he has sure looked stellar in his practice gear.
In drills and scrimmages at Kenosha, Fields ripped off some big runs, caught some balls that could have tripped up a receiver and showed the cut-back ability and slipperiness that helped make Sutton a four-year cog in the backfield.If this were a courtroom, now would be the time to shout: "Objection. This evidence is circumstantial."
OK, true enough. There isn't a lot to work with. The team was going at it in Kenosha for only about a week, and the first full practice of summer wasn't until Aug. 10. Oh, and the season doesn't start for more than a week.No one should be marking down Fields to duplicate Sutton's 1,474-yard freshman campaign just yet.
But in an effort to answer one of the eminent questions about Northwestern's 2009 season – who will be the featured back; will there be a featured back? – Purple Reign got in touch with Fields' former high school coach, Tom Martinez.Martinez coached Fields for four years at Los Osos High School. So PR asked Martinez, who has been Los Osos' head coach for each of the program's seven seasons, to shed some light on Fields – a stab at looking to the future by looking to the past.
For starters, Martinez isn't surprised that Fields is turning heads this quickly into his tenure at NU."We kind of felt he would," Martinez said of Fields, who owns the school's touchdown record with 50. "(Northwestern) had talked about him coming in and challenging for playing time right away. For us, he started as a sophomore on defense, and the next two years he started both ways for us. He's a great player."
That's a good thing for NU, which loses so much with the departure of Sutton. In Sutton, the Cats bid farewell to their second all-time leading rusher (3,886 career yards), second all-purpose yardage gainer (5,138), second-leading touchdown scorer and a guy who averaged 97.2 rushing yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry.It's news to no one, but Sutton was a player. And now, NU is tasked with reloading at a position that hasn't been much of an issue for four years. (Sutton did miss nine games with injuries – four and five the past two seasons. Nonetheless, he was a stalwart.)
It looks like Fields might be the guy to do it, and not just because he wears Sutton's No. 19.As a high-schooler, Fields compiled 2,959 yards rushing in two seasons as tailback. He also had 1,534 receiving yards and of course those 50 TDs. The receiving yards are especially relevant because Sutton – NU's 18th all-time receiving leader – compiled 1,244 receiving yards over his career.
Although the '09 season is less than a month old, Fields picked up in college where he left off in high school.Fields' body of work last week in Kenosha included a 55-yard scamper during team drills, a receiver-esque sideline catch with both feet inbounds and, this Monday, multiple cut-back runs where he gashed the D for big chunks of yardage. It was a nice surprise for Wildcat fans eager to see who is best equipped to man the backfield.
Martinez, though, has seen it before – including three kickoff returns and one punt return that Fields took to house in high school."He can make the big plays," said Martinez, whose team runs the spread offense. "He had good hands he makes real good cuts….He can run (inside) – when he has to, he can get up in there. We did a lot of single back stuff with him, a lot of shotgun. He can go outside but he was definitely capable of going between the tackles."
(Those abilities are on display in the video below...pretty impressive stuff.)Fields, of course, isn't the only player looking to ease the loss of Sutton. Also vying for time in the backfield is Stephen Simmons, a junior who was called upon last season when Sutton and since-graduated backup Omar Conteh suffered injuries.
Simmons, though, struggled to produce in 2008. He averaged just 2.9 yards per carry on 68 carries, and his longest run was 21 yards. (It is worth noting that Simmons had a tweaked ankle last season, which may have crippled his productivity. That he is still a bit of a wildcard speaks to the size of the question mark left by Sutton's departure.)Outside of Simmons and Fields, the top two candidates are sophomore Jeravin Matthews – a converted receiver with zero collegiate carries – and redshirt freshman Alex Daniel, who also has never played in a college game.
To be fair, Fields, a former three-star prospect, hasn't played in a college game either. And, well, it's tough to tell what he'll do himself. Martinez, though, has his own guess what fans can expect."He's going to be able to make big plays," Martinez said. "He makes big play, but he's also going to be able to get that third and one, that third and three. He's going to make that big catch when you need that. So he's a big-play guy, but he can do whatever it takes to help his team."
Martinez has been in touch with Fields since the team's trek to Kenosha, and he said that Fields enjoyed himself and is as confident as ever in his decision to come to Northwestern."I think it's a real good fit because he's really good academically," Martinez said. "He had a 3.8 (GPA) I think, so from that aspect it fits well. It's good also because they told him that he could play two sports; I know he likes baseball a lot."
And this last part should be music to Wildcats' ears:"It was also a good fit for him because they were looking for someone right away, and he is good enough to play right away."
Looks that way.