Northwestern expects to have options to replace top rusher Jackson

  • Northwestern running back Justin Jackson runs the ball against Illinois in Champaign. With the No. 3 all-time Big Ten rusher training with the San Diego Chargers, the Wildcats have options to replace him such as sophomore Jeremy Larkin.

    Northwestern running back Justin Jackson runs the ball against Illinois in Champaign. With the No. 3 all-time Big Ten rusher training with the San Diego Chargers, the Wildcats have options to replace him such as sophomore Jeremy Larkin. AP File Photo, November 2017

 
 
Updated 8/3/2018 7:07 PM

Whether Northwestern's offense is better or worse this season, it will be different.

The Wildcats can no longer build around running back Justin Jackson. The Glenbard North High School grad finished his college career No. 3 on the Big Ten all-time rushing list, behind Ron Dayne and Archie Griffin. Jackson is now in training camp with the San Diego Chargers after being drafted in the seventh round last spring.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So will Northwestern throw it more, find a new lead back? Maybe the answer is a little bit of both.

"I think we're at our best when we're balanced," senior quarterback Clayton Thorson said. "Whatever the coaches ask of me, I'll do. I love to throw the ball, so I'd love to throw the ball 70 times a game, but we'll see."

The likely candidate to step in for Jackson is sophomore Jeremy Larkin. The Cincinnati native was the primary backup last year as a redshirt freshman and ran for 503 yards, averaging 6.0 per carry.

When asked how the offense will change, Larkin felt the Wildcats could have a variety of playmakers this season.

"We have a ton of playmakers now that we're going to be able to expand the offense an not rely on one guy consistently," Larkin said. "I think we'll do what we do best and game plan week-to-week. Definitely having more playmakers, more guys getting involved. The list goes on and on and on with receivers and running backs."

The team's second-leading returning rusher is receiver Jelani Roberts, who had 98 yards on 10 attempts. So there's no obvious challenger to Larkin as the lead back.

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Junior John Moten IV was the team's second-leading rusher two years ago and true freshman Isaiah Bowser from Sidney, Ohio was mentioned as a contender.

Northwestern's top two receivers return -- senior Flynn Nagel from Lemont (48 catches, 489 yards) and junior Bennett Skowronek (45 for 644). A couple of Lake County natives were regulars last season, Stevenson superback Cameron Green and Libertyville receiver Riley Lees.

"Personally, I wish we could throw the ball all the time," Green said. "I would love to say that, but at the same time our running back room is deep. We have a lot of guys that are ready to play. Some people sleep on Jeremy Larkin and what he did last year."

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald was noncommittal on plans to replace Jackson.

"I was asked the same question when we lost Tyrell Sutton and the list goes on and on of great backs," Fitzgerald said. "I think we'll always do players, formations, plays. What do our guys do best? Run the plays that we think play to their strengths and then build options off that."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Thorson, who tore the ACL in his right knee during last year's Music City Bowl, expects to be ready for the Aug. 30 season opener at Purdue. If he's not healthy, the most likely candidate to start is junior T.J. Green, son of former NFL quarterback Trent Green.

Teammates said Thorson worked out with the team all summer, so it appears he's doing well with the recovery.

"We've got him on a pitch count right now and he's looked good for two days" Fitzgerald said of Thorson. "We'll see how things continue to progress."

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