Big Ten: Tyrell Sutton

Northwestern's offense has been rooted in the same philosophy -- players, formations, plays -- since coordinator Mick McCall arrived in 2008. McCall shapes his scheme around the players first before choosing formations and plays that maximize their skills.

In the first four seasons under McCall, most of the players ended up being wide receivers and quarterbacks. Most of Northwestern's formations highlighted the wideouts and most of the plays were passes. Northwestern's offense had a clear passing lean, especially in 2009, when the Wildcats ranked 13th nationally in pass offense. The Wildcats didn't neglect the ground game, but when it came time to identify the best players, the running backs didn't make the cut.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern's Venric Mark
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsLast season Venric Mark became the first Northwestern running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.
"There's been some times in the past at Northwestern in the running back room where there was one guy, and that was it," Matt MacPherson, the team's running backs coach since 2006, told ESPN.com.

MacPherson clearly has his one guy in senior Venric Mark, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012 after rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. Mark, who earned All-America honors as a return man, was Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

But MacPherson thinks Northwestern's options in the backfield go beyond Mark.

"I feel like we have four or five guys in my room right now that we can go win Big Ten football games with," MacPherson said. "That gives you a lot of flexibility, and it allows you to do a lot of different things. I came out of spring very pleased with the way they performed."

Mark remains the undisputed starter and will get the lion's share of the carries in the fall. He sat out most live-tackling drills this spring as a precaution, which allowed the other backs -- Mike Trumpy, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones -- to get more reps.

Trumpy racked up 349 yards and three touchdowns on 76 carries as Mark's primary backup in 2012. Green endured a tough season with injuries and personal issues but bounced back and "had a great spring," MacPherson said. Both Buckley and Jones redshirted in 2012 but likely worked their way into the carries rotation with good springs.

"Our running back room has gotten deeper," McCall said. "We've got some guys that can play in a lot of different situations there. We've continually gotten better in that room."

Northwestern made a noticeable shift toward the run last fall behind Mark and dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter. After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing in McCall's first four seasons as coordinator, Northwestern surged to 19th nationally last year (225.4 ypg).

The rushing focus should continue as long as more running backs meet the first principle of McCall's philosophy. MacPherson thinks they will, and Northwestern might go with a two-back formation, which it used for 10-12 plays per game in 2012, more often this season.

"In my room, those eyes light up when they know we're going to start running the ball a bunch," MacPherson said, "and we're going to have two running backs on the field at the same time. That's something for them to get excited about. That just gives another aspect of competition, knowing that, OK, Venric may be the guy, but when we get into the two-back set, who's going to be the other guy?"

It's a question MacPherson is glad to be asking.

It got interesting in the end because with Northwestern, it always does, but the Wildcats avoided another fourth-quarter collapse and found their identity in the process.

Remember what Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter told me this week?
"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."

Opponents can start game-planning for the Wildcats now. It goes like this: stop Kain Colter.

Iowa had no answers for the Northwestern junior quarterback, who repeatedly gashed the Hawkeyes throughout Saturday's 28-17 victory at Ryan Field. Colter had 26 rushes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including a 39-yard dash on third-and-5 to seal the win. He also completed 6 of 9 passes for 80 yards, including a 47-yard scoring strike to Christian Jones in the third quarter.

Colter helped Northwestern hold on after building a 28-3 lead.

Northwestern's quarterback rotation had stalled the previous three weeks, as sophomore Trevor Siemian struggled, Colter received surprisingly few snaps, three-and-outs spiked and time of possession plummeted. With Colter at quarterback Saturday, Northwestern (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) converted 8-of-11 third-down attempts, went three-and-out only once and racked up 20 first downs and 433 yards against an Iowa defense that, until recently, had been very solid.

Siemian likely will be a good Big Ten quarterback some day, but Northwestern's identity on offense is all about Colter, the option game with running back Venric Mark and converting red zone chances into touchdowns. If not for a bad snap inside the Iowa 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern likely would have put this game away long before it did. Mark had another big day, rushing for 162 yards on 16 carries. His 72-yard run from the Northwestern 1-yard line put him past the 1,000-yard mark for the season -- Northwestern's first back to reach that milestone since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

You have to wonder what Northwestern's record would be if it had stuck with Saturday's offensive approach against both Penn State and Nebraska, teams that erased double-digit fourth-quarter deficits against the Wildcats.

Iowa (4-4, 2-2) had its chances after the bad snap, but the Hawkeyes simply don't have the offensive firepower, imagination or execution to erase big deficits. Watching Iowa try to run the two-minute drill was painful, as the Hawkeyes couldn't attack downfield against a Northwestern defense missing two of its three best cornerbacks. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a very rough go this fall.

Senior quarterback James Vandenberg undoubtedly will receive more criticism from Iowa fans, some of which is merited. Although Vandenberg completed eight of his first nine pass attempts and 11 of 16 in the first half, he couldn't hit the big play, took three sacks and, most disappointing, had three delay of game penalties, including one in the closing minutes with Iowa driving deep in Northwestern territory. You just can't have that from a fifth-year senior. In Vandenberg's defense, he once again got no help from his drops-prone receivers.

The Hawkeyes received a nice boost from Damon Bullock, who returned from a concussion to grind out 107 rush yards on 22 carries. Iowa needed Bullock after Mark Weisman left the game with a hip injury.

Iowa hit a low point against Central Michigan in Week 4, rallied back the next two weeks, but has now been thoroughly outplayed in back-to-back weeks. The Hawkeyes' season could come down to next week's game at Indiana.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is still alive in the Legends Division race, and enters a much-needed off week before trips to both Michigan and Michigan State. After nine weeks, Northwestern finally knows what it is on offense.
Northwestern used to know exactly what it was on offense.

The Wildcats based their spread attack on accurate, dual-threat passers, a precise short-to-midrange throw game, elite slot receivers and a bit of option sprinkled in. They had their problems, like translating yards to points in the red zone, identifying a featured running back and moving the ball in short-yardage situations. But the offense almost always produced, and three-and-outs were rare. Northwestern ranked in the top 25 nationally in third-down efficiency in each of the past five seasons.

There have been different dynamics this season. Northwestern has its first elite back since Tyrell Sutton in Venric Mark, who ranks 18th nationally in rushing and fifth in all-purpose yards. The Wildcats are much stronger in the red zone, particularly on the ground, ranking sixth nationally in efficiency (94 percent) with 19 touchdowns in 31 chances. But they've also slipped dramatically in passing, ranking last in the Big Ten and 110th nationally (172.7 ypg) despite boasting what coach Pat Fitzgerald called the deepest receiving corps in recent memory. The team completion percentage has slipped to 62.6 -- OK for most teams, but not stellar for Northwestern. The Wildcats have attacked downfield much more, while their midrange game seems to have disappeared. Northwestern has slipped to 45th nationally in third-down efficiency.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKain Colter (2) and the Northwestern offense are still searching for an identity.
The biggest change is a quarterback rotation -- Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian -- that clicked early this season but has seemed disjointed the last three weeks, as Northwestern has gone 1-2. Most troubling is the spike in three-and-outs -- six against Penn State (loss), four against Minnesota (win) and 10 last Saturday in a 29-28 loss to Nebraska.

Northwestern's offense isn't what it used to be. What it is exactly remains a mystery, even to key players.

"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."

What should the identity be?

"We've been running the ball really well, especially with the option," Colter said. "Having both Venric and I back there, that's a threat. It's hard for defenses to stop. And at some point in there, there also needs to be Trev in the game and I'm at receiver. I don't know what our identity is, but I feel like we definitely need to establish our running game and our option, and then be able to throw and make plays in the passing game, too."

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall adheres to the philosophy of players, formations, plays. He shapes his plans around the strengths of his players.

But Northwestern's approach against Nebraska was a bit of a head-scratcher. Colter had given the Huskers all sorts of trouble in last year's 28-25 win in Lincoln. But Siemian played most of last Saturday's game, as Nebraska loaded up to take away the run and pressed Northwestern's receivers, resulting in numerous shots down the field. It worked on a 26-yard touchdown strike from Siemian to Tony Jones, but Siemian connected on just 15 of 35 attempts.

Northwestern went 5-for-20 on third down, continuing a troubling trend. Colter had 14 rushes for 35 yards and attempted just two passes, while spending most of the game at slot receiver.

"I don't think that was the game plan, but I'm not the one back there calling the plays," Colter said. "I'm just going where they put me. We did have success last year and obviously got that W. Some things have changed this year, I guess, and I'm going where the coaches tell me [to go]."

Colter noted that Northwestern's improved rushing this season has, at times, taken the place of the high-percentage pass game, which the coaches viewed as runs in the past.

"[Former Northwestern coach Randy Walker] used to say all the time the deep ball, the go route, the fade, is going to be executed 12 to 15 percent of the time, and that's what we were [against Nebraska]," Fitzgerald said. "We've just got to come up with better solutions and better answers in-game when some things aren't working. That's on us as coaches, obviously."

The quarterback rotation has been a different challenge for the Wildcats, who have used multiple quarterbacks in the past but typically because one gets injured. Siemian has attempted more than twice as many passes (162) as Colter (80), while Colter has 88 rushing attempts to Siemian's 17. Colter went 10-for-10 passing in the Minnesota game, but never attacked downfield. Siemian, meanwhile, took the field on several obvious third-and-long passing situations and completed just 1 of 7 attempts against the Gophers.

A potential concern is whether Northwestern tips its hand depending which signal-caller is in the game.

"I believe I can throw the ball," Colter said. "I've proved that throughout my time here. If I get that opportunity, I'm going to try and do it. I definitely have a lot to improve on as far as passing and so on, but I feel like I'm more than capable. I don't feel like we need to be predictable as far as when I'm in the game, we're going to run the ball. I feel like we've got to keep defenses on their toes."

Despite the offensive issues, Northwestern remains 6-2, still alive in the Legends Division race. But the clock is ticking to find an identity, eliminate the three-and-outs and feature its playmakers as much as possible.

Colter and his teammates hope to show Iowa who they really are Saturday at Ryan Field.

"We're definitely working on what works best for us, and sticking to that, having our offensive foundation," he said. "We'll see how it goes this week. Hopefully, we can go out there, get a W and change things around, regain momentum as we head into some crucial weeks of the season."
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern running back Venric Mark doesn't need a doctor to make the diagnosis.

Like most things in his life, he can do it all by himself.

"I have little man's syndrome," Mark told ESPN.com. "I've had that all my life, since Day 1. I've always been the small guy in the group. I've always been the guy that people go, 'Oh, no, let's not pick him.' So in my head, I'm thinking, 'OK, you're not going to pick me. I'm going to show you why you should have.'"

Any college coach who wouldn't pick Mark after the first half of the 2012 season hasn't been paying attention.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanRunning back Venric Mark is on pace to break 1,000 yards.
Mark might be 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, but he's the single biggest reason why Northwestern sits at 6-1, right in the thick of the Legends division race. Along with Iowa running back Mark Weisman and Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson, Mark has been one of the Big Ten's surprise offensive stars through the first seven weeks, rushing for 792 yards and eight touchdowns.

He ranks fifth in the league and 15th nationally in rushing average (113.9 ypg). He also leads the league and ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (184.6 ypg), recording two punt returns for touchdowns and 15 receptions, one for a touchdown. After putting himself in position to break most of Northwestern's career return records, Mark's emergence at running back has put the team's all-time career all-purpose yards mark (5,271 by Damien Anderson) very much in play.

"He's just playing at a high level right now," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... He's a joy to coach."

Northwestern had 1,000-yard rushers every season from 2002-06, but none since. The team has lacked a true threat at running back since Tyrell Sutton departed after the 2008 season. For an offense born out of the Rich Rodriguez-style spread, it was a problem.

Few would have pegged Mark, a return specialist who struggled to find a true position for two years, to be the answer. Just don't tell him that.

"He has a level of intensity that if he was Muhammad Ali, he'd be knocking everybody out," said Northwestern linebackers coach Randy Bates, who recruited Mark out of Houston's St. Pius X High School.

Several times after runs, Mark has confronted defenders more than a half-foot taller than him.

"With football, emotions run high, people talk," Mark said. "For me, that's fuel. When they say, 'You ain't getting this,' that just motivates me."

Mark's edginess is his defining trait, even more so than the top-level speed that got him on the field at Northwestern as a returner and has been showcased on long runs, like scoring bursts of 48 and 26 yards last week against Minnesota. He's not a scat back who spends all his time on the perimeter.

He's a between-the-tackles runner who, along with quarterback Kain Colter, has boosted Northwestern's red zone run game, a weakness of the offense in previous years.

"Inside zone is his favorite play," Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson said. "You have to be a special kid, a tough kid, and Venric is pound-for-pound one of the toughest guys on our team. He embraces that role. He wants it."

McPherson likened Mark to former Northern Illinois star Garrett Wolfe, who checked in at 5-7 and 185 pounds and while displaying tremendous speed in space, also had success between the tackles. Wolfe led the nation in rushing (1,928) in 2006.

When Bates began recruiting Mark, he heard some doubts about whether Mark could play in the Big Ten because of his size. Mark won Bates over with his intensity, a quality they share ("We're both pretty whacked-out in our own way," Bates joked).

The question always seemed to be where Mark would play.

Special teams was a given, and Mark became Northwestern's primary returner as a true freshman in 2010, averaging 26.2 yards on kick returns with a touchdown, and 12.9 yards on punt returns. He also stood out on kick coverage.

"There's no doubt in my mind if ever played anywhere at the next level, he could be on all special teams," Bates said. "He was a punt gunner and he was a kickoff guy, and obviously great returning. All that special teams value, even if he never played a snap on offense or defense, he already was a good player."

The coaches tried Mark at slot receiver, but he had just six receptions in his first two seasons, playing behind All-Big Ten selection Jeremy Ebert. There was some talk of using him on defense, but it never materialized. Although Mark came to Northwestern with the idea of simply being the team's starting returner, he wanted more and wasn't happy at receiver.

"I wanted the ball," he said. "I'm that type of player, I'm not going to lie to you. I like having the ball in my hands."

The coaches moved Mark from receiver to running back midway through the 2011 season.

"We weren't quite sure what position we were going to start him at, and as you can see, we were wrong," Fitzgerald said. "Hindsight being 20-20, we wish he would have started in the backfield sooner."

MacPherson knew Mark could make plays in space. His concern was how Mark would handle the mental challenge of being a running back in the Big Ten, where "you get the crap beat out of you," while remaining effective as a receiver and a blocker in Northwestern's offense.

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to get Mark 25 touches per game. While MacPherson admits those won't be 25 inside zone plays, Mark has shown he can be a featured back, despite his size.

"I can take licks," Mark said. "Being a running back, you're going to get bumps and bruises. But it's how you play with them, it's your mindset. Coach MacPherson always talks about [defenders as] nameless, faceless victims. That's what they are."

How many victims has Mark taken this season?

"A lot," he said. "Us as a team, we've taken a lot. And we plan on taking a lot more."
Mark-RobinsonGetty ImagesNorthwestern's Venric Mark and Penn State's Allen Robinson have been nice surprises this season.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two Topic is inspired by Maxwell from Madison, Wis., who asked during Monday's chat: To this point, who is [the Big Ten's] non-quarterback offensive MVP?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

Maxwell posed an interesting question, because it's pretty obvious through six weeks that Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Penn State's Matt McGloin are two of the top MVP candidates in the league, while Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Denard Robinson are crucial to their team's fortunes. Some of the running backs we expected to be MVP candidates, like Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, haven't had the kind of years anyone projected. My answer to this question is a guy hardly anybody was talking about this summer: Penn State receiver Allen Robinson. When Derek Moye graduated and Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma, the Nittany Lions receiving corps was badly in need of a leader this fall. Robinson, a sophomore, has taken that on his shoulders. He leads all Big Ten receivers in catches (41), yards (524) and touchdowns (7). McGloin has had a standout season, but more than a third of his passing yards have gone to Robinson. Penn State's offense wouldn't be nearly the same. And there's almost no way the team would be 4-2 without him.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Robinson is a very good choice, BB. He has become a star at a position that entered the season with major question marks after Brown's departure. The same could be said for Northwestern's running back spot, which hasn't had a true standout since Tyrell Sutton left following the 2008 season. Things have changed this season because of Venric Mark, and he's my pick for non-QB offensive MVP. Despite standing barely 5-foot-8, Mark is the biggest reason why Northwestern started 5-0, and why the Wildcats were in position to be 6-0 before a fourth-quarter collapse at Penn State. He has three 100-yard rushing performances and averages 5.4 yards per carry with six rushing touchdowns. And unlike Robinson, Iowa's Mark Weisman, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell or most other candidates (save for Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah), Mark has made a huge impact in more than one way. He has two punt returns for touchdowns, averages 32.9 yards per runback and ranks second in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in all-purpose yards (180.5 ypg). Only one other Northwestern player ever had recorded multiple punt return touchdowns in a season (Tom Worthington in 1949). Mark also has been surprisingly good in the red zone despite his size and complements quarterback Kain Colter in the option.

Home run summer: Northwestern

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
11:00
AM ET
Our series continues looking at a player or a group of players from each Big Ten team who needs a home run type of summer before preseason camp begins. Who needs to hit it out of the park in preparation for the season?

For previous entries, click here.

In the batter's box: Northwestern

Who needs to step it up: The veterans on defense

The easy answer here would be the unproven players on both sides of the ball, or a guy like quarterback Kain Colter, or a running back group that hasn't produced a star since Tyrell Sutton exited after the 2008 season. But if Northwestern doesn't have better leadership and communication on defense, its victory total will continue to decline, and its streak of bowl appearances will end. Communication issues plagued the Wildcats' defense throughout 2011, especially with the secondary and in games like a 41-31 loss at Iowa. As more young players step into key roles at positions like cornerback, Northwestern has to make sure everyone is on the same page. The responsibility falls on players like senior linebacker David Nwabuisi, junior defensive end Tyler Scott and sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell. While Campbell is just a redshirt sophomore, he has to be a leader for the secondary after recording a team-high 100 tackles in 2011. It's a big summer for the leaders on defense to unite the unit and make sure everyone is on the same page. Younger players like cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson showed potential during spring ball, and Northwestern could be a less experienced, but more talented overall defense in 2012. But missed assignments kill any defense, and it's up to the veterans to limit them as much as possible this season.
We're wrapping up our series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team. Once again, this is not necessarily a listing of the best players on each team, but ones whose absence would be toughest to absorb because of their particular value or a lack of depth behind them.

We're selecting two players from each Big Ten squad, usually one on offense and one on defense, but not always. In case you missed the previous posts, they're all right here.

Let's finish off the series with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Ibraheim Campbell, S, Sophomore

Campbell is just a third-year sophomore, but he's the graybeard in Northwestern's secondary, which loses three starters from 2011, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters. The Wildcats' struggles against the pass are well documented, and while there's excitement about younger players like cornerback Nick VanHoose, Campbell's experience and leadership is crucial entering the fall. Campbell led the team with 100 tackles, and recorded two interceptions, a fumble recovery, four pass breakups and 3.5 tackles for loss. Although he made his share of mistakes during his redshirt freshman season, he showed good potential and is a favorite among the coaches. Northwestern placed a premium on improved communication this spring after enduring several breakdowns last season. Campbell will be instrumental in this area, and Northwestern simply can't afford to lose him with so much new blood in the secondary.

Kain Colter, QB, Junior

There's some debate among Northwestern fans about whether Colter should be the starting quarterback, given the concerns about his arm strength. But there's no debate that Colter is the team's best athlete, and a truly dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands. He showed it last fall when thrust into the starting role for the rehabbing Dan Persa, recording 654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns (9 rushing, 6 passing, 3 receiving). Colter led Northwestern to its signature win at Nebraska, and finished the season as one of the nation's most versatile players. If he can complement his top-end running skills with better passing, Northwestern could have one of the Big Ten's most productive offenses yet again. Colter's mobility stands out on a team that hasn't produced an elite running back since 2008 (Tyrell Sutton). Although the team has other options at quarterback, Colter's presence on the field is vital for Northwestern to maintain its success on offense.

Northwestern spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
8:00
AM ET
2011 record: 6-7
2011 conference record: 3-5 (fifth, Legends Division)
Returning starters: offense: 5; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Kain Colter, WR Demetrius Fields, WR Christian Jones, G Brian Mulroe, C Brandon Vitabile, DE Tyler Scott, LB David Nwabuisi, S Ibraheim Campbell

Key losses
QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, LT Al Netter, CB Jordan Mabin, S Brian Peters, DT Jack DiNardo

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Kain Colter* (654 yards)
Passing: Dan Persa (2,376 yards)
Receiving: Jeremy Ebert (1,060 yards)
Tackles: Ibraheim Campbell* (100)
Sacks: Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo and Quentin Williams* (3)
Interceptions: Brian Peters (5)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line makes strides: Northwestern's pass rush has been absent for the past two seasons, but things could soon be shifting. The defensive line turned in a strong spring as several unproven players stepped forward, including freshman end Deonte Gibson and sophomore tackle Chance Carter, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the spring game. Tyler Scott could be primed for a breakout season, and the Wildcats should be able to ratchet up their pressure with the front four.

2. On target: They might not be household names, but Northwestern's receivers performed very well this spring and form by far the deepest posttion group on the squad. Demetrius Fields provides a veteran presence, and sophomore Christian Jones brings size to the slot position. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, and Cam Dickerson emerged as a reliable option this spring. Even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play this season, Northwestern will have plenty of options in the pass game.

3. Nick of time: The struggles in the secondary are well documented, and the Wildcats lose three starters from 2011, including first-team All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters. They'll need several players to grow up quickly and cornerback Nick VanHoose obliged this spring with a strong performance. VanHoose, who redshirted last season, put himself in position to secure a starting job and showcased good speed and ball skills.

Fall questions

1. Colter's arm: Kain Colter is the best athlete Northwestern has had at quarterback since installing the spread offense in 2000, but his passing skills remain under scrutiny. He made velocity a chief priority during the offseason after completing 55 of 82 pass attempts in 2011, and while he showed promise in practices, he looked shaky in the spring game. Northwestern's offense doesn't stretch the field that often, but the Wildcats quarterbacks must make high-percentage throws to the outside and keep the chains moving. Colter's running skills are special, but he must continue to make progress with his throwing arm.

2. Defensive playmakers: The Wildcats are in desperate need of difference-makers on defense after recording just 20 takeaways (T-77th nationally), 17 sacks (T-106th) and 59 tackles for loss (104th) last season. While the defensive line's play this spring is encouraging, Northwestern needs more from all three levels of the defense, particularly a linebacking corps that returns all three starters. Peters' presence in the secondary will be missed, and when fall camp kicks off in August, the coaches will be looking for players who can fly to the ball and change the game.

3. Offensive line/run game: It's essential for the line to build better chemistry during preseason camp after mixed results this spring. Northwestern hasn't produced an elite featured running back since Tyrell Sutton graduated, and the physical run blocking simply hasn't been there on a consistent basis. The line also struggled in the spring game, surrendering six sacks and eight tackles for loss. While Colter's mobility should help out the front five, the group needs to elevate its play for the offense to keep producing at a high rate.
Adonis Smith's decision to transfer from Northwestern might not mean much come September.

But his exit adds to the questions surrounding a position that hasn't provided enough definitive answers in the past few seasons.

Smith appeared in 17 games the past two seasons, racking up 462 rush yards and three touchdowns. He might have evolved into the Wildcats' featured back, but he also might have been a career backup. It's tough to tell. Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced Smith's departure Wednesday.
[+] EnlargeAdonis Smith
Jerry Lai/US PRESSWIRERunning back Adonis Smith has decided to transfer from Northwestern.
"We're disappointed to see Adonis leave Northwestern," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "He is an outstanding young man and we wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors."

Wildcats fans will forget about Smith if, say, Mike Trumpy returns from a torn ACL and surges as the starter. Or if true freshman Malin Jones emerges in preseason camp. Or if Treyvon Green builds on a freshman season in which he rushed for 362 yards and four touchdowns.

But if Northwestern can't identify a featured back and fails to generate a consistent rushing attack in 2012, Smith's name likely will be brought up.

While a struggling defense should be coach Pat Fitzgerald's top priority in the offseason, running back shouldn't be too far down his checklist. Northwestern's offense has made strides under Fitzgerald's watch, producing a steady stream of quarterbacks and wide receivers in recent years. But the running back position, once a program strong point, has declined.

Fitzgerald's predecessor at Northwestern, the late Randy Walker, left an indelible mark on the position he played in college. Walker had a 1,000-yard rusher in 25 of his 30 seasons in coaching, including each of his final four seasons as Northwestern's head coach (2002-05). Northwestern produced a 1,000-yard rusher in five of Walker's final six seasons.

But since Tyrell Sutton finished with exactly 1,000 yards in 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as Wildcats coach, Northwestern has failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher.

Here are the team's leading rushers the past five seasons:

  • 2007: Sutton, 451 yards
  • 2008: Sutton, 890 yards
  • 2009: Arby Fields, 302 yards
  • 2010: Trumpy, 530 yards
  • 2011: Kain Colter, 654 yards

Colter, by the way, plays quarterback for the Wildcats. Fields transferred following a disappointing 2010 season when he struggled to hang onto the ball or a favorable spot on the depth chart.

Why can't Northwestern produce featured backs anymore? An offense rooted in high-percentage passes and accurate quarterbacks has something to do with it. But the Wildcats have run the spread since 2000, and it didn't stop them from producing standout backs under Walker.

Northwestern has run the ball better as a team the past two seasons, rising from 95th nationally in rushing in 2009 to 58th in 2010 and 45th in 2011. But the team had a league-low 3.8 yards-per-carry average last fall.

Jones, the team's first commit in the 2012 recruiting class, could be the answer, much like Sutton was in 2005, when he captured Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Perhaps Trumpy bounces back from injury or Green takes steps in his development. Maybe a committee system is the best approach.

If not, you might hear some grumbling about Adonis Smith in September.
The Big Ten postseason position rankings march on with the running backs. The running back rankings evaluate the entire position group, although superstar players affected the placement, too. Certain groups of running backs ran behind better offensive lines than others, and we took that into account when compiling the rankings.

Check out the preseason running back rankings here.

Onto the rundown ...

1. Wisconsin: Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball built on a strong finish to 2010 and took his game to another level in 2011. The Big Ten offensive player of the year headlined a Wisconsin rushing attack that led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally. While James White had a reduced role this past season, he still averaged 5.1 yards a carry and racked up 713 rush yards and six touchdowns. Ball also contributed in the passing game with 24 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireRunning back Rex Burkhead proved to be a workhorse for Nebraska this past season.
2. Nebraska: Rex Burkhead wore an "N" on his helmet, but it might as well have been an "S" on his chest. The player nicknamed "Superman" triggered a Nebraska rushing attack that ranked 15th nationally. Burkhead racked up 284 carries for 1,357 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. Although the Huskers didn't show a ton of depth at the position, young players like Ameer Abdullah have bright futures.

3. Ohio State: Although a quarterback (Braxton Miller) led the pass-averse Buckeyes in rushing, Ohio State had several capable ball carriers this past season. Carlos Hyde contributed early in the season and finished with 566 rush yards and six touchdowns on 106 carries. Dan Herron provided a spark after returning from suspension, averaging five yards a carry. Jordan Hall also tallied 100 carries and averaged more than four yards per rush.

4. Michigan: The coaches entered the season looking for a featured back and got one as Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged midway through the season. Toussaint racked up 120 yards or more in four of Michigan's final five regular-season games and displayed superstar potential at times. Although Toussaint and quarterback Denard Robinson had the bulk of the carries, reserves Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both averaged more than six yards per carry.

5. Penn State: Much like Ohio State, Penn State relied heavily on its ground game to account for a shaky passing attack. Sophomore Silas Redd shouldered the burden, particularly during the month of October, when he led the FBS with 703 rush yards, including five 100-yard games. Redd finished with 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, and Stephfon Green stepped up later in the season and had six rushing scores. Burly sophomore Curtis Dukes averaged 5.8 yards a carry.

6. Purdue: The Boilers had a featured back in Ralph Bolden but also had very good depth at the position. It showed up in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which Bolden missed with a torn ACL. Akeem Shavers led the way and others contributed, too. Purdue finished the season with two 500-yard rushers in Bolden and Shavers, while freshman speedster Akeem Hunt averaged 8.7 yards on 33 carries.

7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes were a bit of a dichotomy in 2011, as they finished last in the Big Ten in rushing but had the league's top rusher for part of the season in Marcus Coker. Despite being suspended for the Insight Bowl, Coker finished second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,384) and 15th nationally in rushing average (115.3 ypg). He had 281 carries, while no other running back had more than 31, so it was a one-man show for Iowa in 2011.

8. Michigan State: The Spartans' rushing production went down in 2011, as Michigan State went from 64th nationally in rushing to 78th. MSU ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for much of the season and finished 11th. But the team's struggles had more to do with a new-look offensive line than the running backs. Le'Veon Bell came on strong late in the season and rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. Edwin Baker's numbers went down, but he added 665 rush yards and five scores.

9. Illinois: Here's another team that had a quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase) as its leading rusher, but Illinois also featured multiple options at running back. Although Jason Ford had an up-and-down season, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young proved to be capable ball carriers. Young averaged 5.2 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns, while Pollard averaged 7.2 yards a carry and had 488 rush yards and two scores.

10. Indiana: Although the Hoosiers have plenty of issues to address going forward, the running back spot appears solid. Stephen Houston started the final eight games and established himself as the featured back with 802 yards and eight touchdowns on 151 carries (5.3 ypc). Houston was productive in Big Ten play and a nice complement to quarterback Tre Roberson. D'Angelo Roberts and Matt Perez both added four touchdowns.

11. Northwestern: Echoing a common theme, Northwestern's top rusher was a quarterback (Kain Colter). While the offense has been productive the past few years, the Wildcats haven't found an elite featured back since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Jacob Schmidt was solid for stretches, and young backs Treyvon Green and Adonis Smith contributed at times. Mike Trumpy might still be the best of the bunch, but his season was cut short by a knee injury.

12. Minnesota: Although quarterback MarQueis Gray ran the ball well (966 rush yards, 6 TDs), Minnesota needs more from the running back spot going forward. Duane Bennett and Donnell Kirkwood both averaged less than four yards per carry, and the Gophers had only two 100-yard rushing performances from a running back.
Like all quarterbacks, Northwestern's Kain Colter must master clock management.

But not only the clock on the scoreboard. The one in his head, too.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmNorthwestern's Kain Colter has passed for 301 yards and rushed for 180 over his first two career starts.
Colter has racked up yards (180 rush, 301 pass) and touchdowns (4 rushing) in his first two career starts. He also has racked up hits, a few too many for anyone's liking, especially with top quarterback Dan Persa still not medically cleared to play.

There's no doubt Colter is a special player with the ball in his hands. While Northwestern looks for its first bell-cow running back since Tyrell Sutton, the team's best option appears to be the guy taking the snaps.

"Dynamic," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said of Colter. "That's the one word that describes him best. He's a handful to defend. He's done a very, very good job and we're really pleased."

McCall's challenge is to develop Colter into a complete quarterback, one who knows when to take off and when to stand his ground in the pocket and wait for pass plays to develop. Although Northwestern boasts one of the Big Ten's deepest groups of receivers, the team ranks near the bottom of the league in pass attempts (40).

The good news is McCall has been down this road before. Mike Kafka was a run-first quarterback who led the Big Ten with 3,430 pass yards in 2009. Persa began his career as a run-first quarterback before completing a league-record 73.5 percent of his pass attempts for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

"You look early in Dan’s career, early in Mike's career, all them have the ability to make plays with their feet," McCall said. "They go, '1-2, I got to get out of here.'"

McCall is trying to get Colter to wait a little longer.

"There's times he's pulled it down where he didn't have to," McCall said. "Last week he checked the ball down a lot better. ... As time goes on, he'll get better at checking the ball down, getting that progression to the third or fourth [receiver] and he won't have to use his feet so much."

Colter went through some sliding drills this week in practice, and McCall is telling the sophomore when he should run out of bounds rather than absorb another hit.

"I've got to teach him to manage himself a little bit better," McCall said. "He wants to go make every play like every young guy does."

Another item on McCall's agenda is what to do at quarterback when Persa is medically cleared to play. Persa, who has had increased participation in practice, said this week he should be back by the Big Ten opener Oct. 1, at the latest. McCall said there's still a chance the senior plays Saturday at Army.

Although McCall isn't too wrapped up in how he'll use Persa and Colter, he admits the coaches will "get our creative juices going" soon.

"Until I get told that he's a full-go, that's what I'm waiting on," McCall said. "We'll see when that comes and we'll get him going again. I know he's been itching to play and he's working his fanny off. It's been a tough ordeal. It's hard coming back because you're so close but you've got to get over this hurdle. ... There's always going to be times where you get setbacks in your rehab; it doesn't matter what the injury is.

"But he's still way ahead of the game compared to the normal timeline."

While Persa tries to accelerate his return, Colter's best approach could be to slow things down just a bit.

Wildcats' run game turns to Trumpy

September, 29, 2010
9/29/10
5:00
PM ET
First, Northwestern turned to Stephen Simmons, but he got hurt.

The Wildcats then tried Arby Fields. And Scott Concannon. And Jacob Schmidt. And Simmons again. The result was a rushing attack that ranked eighth in the Big Ten and 95th nationally in 2009.

Northwestern went back to Fields and Schmidt in the 2010 season opener against Vanderbilt, but only got fumbles and short gains. Through the first four games, Northwestern has had four lost fumbles from its running backs and no runs of longer than 20 yards, a problem that has carried over from last season.

The hard truth: Since Tyrell Sutton graduated, Northwestern has had a major hole in its backfield.

But there's hope this week as the undefeated Wildcats open Big Ten play at Minnesota.

Redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy gets his chance to become the answer for Northwestern's rushing issues. Trumpy, who missed all of 2009 because of injuries, provided a lift last week against Central Michigan with 53 yards on 12 attempts, all in the second half of a 30-25 victory.

His performance elevated him to co-starter status with Schmidt on this week's depth chart.

"Michael, really the first time being healthy here a couple weeks ago, has put a couple good weeks of practice together," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He ran hard for his first real opportunity of getting some carries besides mop-up duty. His role is going to increase based on the production that he has."

At 6-foot and 210 pounds, Trumpy gives Northwestern a little extra size at running back. The nephew of former NFL star Bob Trumpy ran hard between the tackles against Central Michigan and most important, he held onto the football.

Northwestern on Saturday faces a Minnesota team ranks last in the Big Ten and 97th nationally against the run (187.8 ypg). Northern Illinois' Chad Spann gashed the Gophers for 223 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win.

It's a good opportunity for Trumpy to help himself in a wide-open backfield. If he's not the answer, Northwestern might not have one, unless it wants to use true freshman Adonis Smith, an increasingly unlikely possibility.

"We've made no secret we want to try and be much more efficient running the football," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald knows that as good as quarterback Dan Persa and the wide receivers have been, a one-dimensional offense can only go so far in Big Ten play.

If the Wildcats plan to turn their quick start into a special season, someone needs to answer the call at running back.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald played the role of reporter at Monday's practice when he approached junior running back Stephen Simmons.

"I told him the only question I will get asked today is about you so can you give me a response so I can tell the media and our fans what you're going to do," Fitzgerald said. "He said, 'Yeah, I'm going to play.'"

That's very good news for a struggling Wildcats rushing attack, which hasn't been the same since Simmons suffered an ankle injury in Week 2 against Eastern Michigan. Simmons looked impressive in the first two games, averaging nearly five yards per carry and scoring a pair of touchdowns in limited work.

Since his injury, Northwestern has averaged just 67.7 rush yards a game, dropping to 10th in the Big Ten in rushing offense.

"We get one of our weapons back," Fitzgerald said. "I thought at the start of the season he ran the ball really well and it will be great to get him back with some fresh legs. He hasn't played in three weeks, while everyone else has been grinding through."

True freshman Arby Fields has been elevated to a starting role on the depth chart, with sophomore Jacob Schmidt serving as the backup. Fields, often compared to former Wildcats star Tyrell Sutton, has shown bursts of brilliance mixed in with some ball-security issues.

Schmidt can be effective in short-yardage situations and on screen passes, as he showed last Saturday with three receptions for 37 yards against Purdue. Jeravin Matthews also is back in the fold after battling an injury.

But Simmons provides the Wildcats with a true featured back, provided he's healthy.
  • Northwestern made one other depth-chart change this week, moving linebacker David Arnold into a starting role ahead of Ben Johnson. Arnold, a converted safety who has battled injuries his first two seasons, recorded a sack and a forced fumble in the Purdue victory. "I told our coaches a few weeks back when we were having some injuries that they just had to stay the course, the cavalry's coming," Fitzgerald said. "I thought David was part of that. He's a playmaker for us."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A quick check on the three early Big Ten games, which have all reached halftime. So far, I'm 0-for-3 on picks.

Indiana-Michigan: Kudos to Bill Lynch and the Hoosiers, who don't look intimidated at all in the Big House. After Michigan answered an early Hoosiers touchdown with two quick scores, Indiana came back strong. Michigan's problems on defense, particularly in the secondary, are being exposed in this game. Hoosiers quarterback Ben Chappell looks really good so far. Wolverines running back Carlos Brown has had a big day, and Brandon Minor has resurfaced alongside him.

Michigan State-Wisconsin: The Badgers look legit, folks, while Michigan State looks, well, like Michigan State usually does. Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien and tight end Garrett Graham have capitalized on a Spartans secondary that continues to look shaky. Tolzien is making a ton of clutch throws, as he has most of the season. Things aren't so good for Michigan State quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, both of whom have thrown interceptions against a Badgers defense that appears to have turned a corner. It looks like I misjudged Wisconsin. I definitely misjudged Michigan State.

Minnesota-Northwestern: The Golden Gophers run game has finally showed life against a Northwestern defense that looks like its pre-2008 form. Eric Decker is having another big game, but Minnesota has gotten help from Duane Bennett (2 touchdown runs). That should really open up the playbook for offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. After taking a big step forward on defense in 2008, Northwestern has backslid. The Wildcats at times seem like they've forgotten how to tackle. Quarterback Mike Kafka has been very good once again, and freshman Arby Fields looks like a Tyrell Sutton clone in a strong first half. Both teams have left some points on the field.

Best case-worst case: Northwestern

September, 2, 2009
9/02/09
4:48
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The seventh installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.


BEST CASE




The offense reloads, the defense keeps pace, Pat Fitzgerald fends off suitors and Northwestern heads back to the postseason.

Despite losing multiyear starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, the Wildcats don't miss a beat on offense and actually increase their production. Mike Kafka provides the true dual threat quarterback that the spread offense demands, while Tyrell Sutton-clone Arby Fields headlines the rushing attack. The defense gets even better in Year 2 under coordinator Mike Hankwitz, and Northwestern gets through a season without special teams costing it a game.

The Wildcats cruise through their first two weeks as Kafka and the other first-time starters on offense gain confidence. Surprisingly good crowds turn up at Ryan Field to watch Northwestern crush Towson and Eastern Michigan. The team heads to Syracuse and thumps the Orange for the second straight year, as Corey Wootton sacks Greg Paulus four times. Northwestern then delivers more heartbreak to Minnesota, beating the Gophers in overtime on a Kafka touchdown run.

A trip to Purdue follows, and Northwestern improves to 5-0 as the run game capitalizes on a questionable Boilers front seven. The schedule spits out another patsy the next week, and the Wildcats start 6-0 by trouncing Miami (Ohio). For the second straight year, Northwestern heads to Michigan State undefeated and this time, the Wildcats don't doom themselves in the first quarter and pull out a 28-21 victory.

Entering the Top 25 for the first time, Northwestern avenges last year's inexcusable loss to Indiana by thrashing the Hoosiers. A tough closing stretch begins with Penn State on Halloween, and the Wildcats stumble for the first time. They recover to win two of their final three contests, including their third straight at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium, to finish at 10-2.

The Capital One Bowl predictably passes over Northwestern, but the Outback Bowl, which snubbed the team last year, selects the Wildcats to face Arkansas. Northwestern wins its first bowl since the 1949 Rose and winds up 11-2. Wootton earns All-America honors and wins the Ted Hendricks Award. After firing Charlie Weis, Notre Dame makes a run at Fitzgerald, who stiff-arms South Bend and says he'll coach NU for life. Northwestern finalizes a 2011 game at Wrigley Field and sees home attendance increase by 25 percent.


WORST CASE


New personnel struggle on offense, the defense backslides, attendance continues to struggle and Fitzgerald considers leaving.

Once again, Northwestern takes a major step back on offense with a new quarterback, as Kafka never establishes himself as a passer and throws too many pick-sixes. The defense reverts to its 2007 form at times, as Wootton and several other contributors go down with injuries. The kicking game costs the Wildcats two wins.

After two unimpressive victories to open the season, Northwestern heads to Syracuse and performs much like it did at Duke last year, except with a worse result. An uninspired offense doesn't move the ball, and Paulus dissects a veteran defense. A week later, Minnesota avenges back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Northwestern, which misses four field goals and watches the Gophers' Troy Stoudermire return a kickoff for a touchdown in a 35-28 loss.

The Wildcats rebound against Purdue and Miami (Ohio), but they come out shaky against Michigan State for the second straight year and can't recover. After squeaking by Indiana, Northwestern drops its final four games, including a heartbreaker to Wisconsin at home, to miss the postseason despite a cushy schedule. Wootton reinjures his knee against Penn State, and three of the four secondary starters also go down.

Attendance struggles again at Ryan Field, as visiting fans regularly outnumber NU backers during Big Ten play. Notre Dame comes after Fitzgerald, and the coach takes a long time before deciding to stay in Evanston, making NU fans very uncertain about his future with the program.

SPONSORED HEADLINES