A high-powered passing game has been a hallmark of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure at Northwestern. But during that same time, the team has mostly lacked a star running back.
The Wildcats haven't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton ran for exactly that amount in 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as head coach. The last three years, they haven't even had a player rush for more than 654 yards, and last season the team averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, lowest in the Big Ten.
None of that has stopped Northwestern from scoring points in bunches. But the players and coaches are looking for a little bit more from the running game this season.
"Our running backs haven't so far stepped up and haven't gotten a lot of love on the field," junior Venric Mark told ESPN.com. "But this year, I feel like we're going to do great things. That's a bold statement, but I think we can."
Fitzgerald has several options that he's still sorting out in training camp. Mark moved from wide receiver to running back in the offseason and is having a great preseason. Though only 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, he's a speedster who has been a dynamic kick returner.
"I'm not a very big back, but we all have different attributes and characteristics we use," Mark said. "If I see a 240-pound linebacker coming at me, the smart thing would not be to stand up and block him, but I'm definitely going to try and take his knees out if possible."
Speaking of knees, Mike Trumpy is working back from a torn ACL that ended his season during the Illinois game a year ago. Trumpy was Northwestern's leading rusher at the time and was averaging more than five yards per carry. His 2010 season also was curtailed early by a wrist injury.
Trumpy told ESPN.com that he was still knocking the rust off during training camp, but he's happy to be back.
"That first drill, I was a little hesitant and it was nerve-wracking," he said. "But I try to have the mindset of not holding back, just trusting it and running as hard as I can."
Sophomore Treyvon Green, who ran for 362 yards and four touchdowns last year, suffered a scary injury that resulted in his hospitalization on Friday. But Fitzgerald said Green should make a full recovery and be ready for the season opener. Senior Tyris Jones used his 220-pound frame as a short-yardage back last year.
"We probably have a little more depth than we've had the last few years," Fitzgerald told reporters Monday. "The way the whole group is running the ball right now, I'm not saying one guy is taking this role, one guy is taking that role. We're just rolling guys in right now."
Any examination of the Wildcats' ball-carrying options also has to include quarterback Kain Colter, who's such a good athlete that he could probably start at receiver or running back. He was the team's leading rusher with 654 yards last season, but Fitzgerald would rather that his quarterback not carry it 135 times as Colter did. Still, defenses have to be ready for him as well as the tailbacks.
"That's what makes us very dangerous," Mark said. "We have such a versatile backfield."
The Northwestern running game hasn't been as strongly emphasized in recent years in part because of the presence of athletic quarterbacks like Dan Persa. When Persa can move around and complete more than 70 percent of his throws, you don't necessarily need a stud tailback.
"We're a different kind of offense," senior offensive lineman Brian Mulroe said. "We're a spread offense, and we don't have 330-pound maulers up front. We're more on the athletic side. We're going to create holes and try to give the quarterback time."
Yet the Wildcats would still love to develop a feature back. Or maybe backs. If there isn't a 1,000-yard rusher but several players contribute to improve the team's ground game, so be it.
"If it takes five guys, then that's what we're going to do," Trumpy said.