NU's Simmons could bolster rushing attack

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."