Wildcats backs ready to make an impact

Arby Fields is more relaxed, and he said he's no longer worried about making mistakes. Courtesy Stephen J. Carrera

EVANSTON, Ill. – After walking across the Northwestern practice field side by side with his fellow running backs, Arby Fields takes a few quick steps as they approach the reporter on the sideline.

Fields has decided he’s going to talk first. He wants to be first at everything.

Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons aren’t having it. They’re not going to allow Fields, the youngest of the trio, to get back to the locker room first after the interview. No, Simmons and Schmidt -- a senior and junior, respectively -- decide they’ll be interviewed by seniority, leaving the sophomore Fields to wait the longest.

The competition never ends with this group.

Off the field, they debate which of the running backs is the tallest and the fastest. The 5-8 Simmons states he’s both, but everyone, including him, knows that’s not true.

“Height doesn’t actually matter,” Simmons said when asked how much taller he is than the others. “Just write [I’m the tallest and fastest] in the story.”

Fields’ reaction to Simmons’ claim was disbelief.

“Ha, Steph did not say that,” said the 5-9 Fields. “He’s definitely not the tallest. He’s definitely not the fastest.”

For the record, the 5-10 Schmidt is the tallest of the three.

The three also are competing on the field for a starting role. They try to keep the mood light, encourage each other and want to see the group do well. But Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told them that he’s still looking for a starting running back, and they’re all out to win that position.

“It’s a competition, but it’s still fun,” Simmons said. “We’re just out here having fun, playing. We’re out here going at each other’s throats, but it’s a friendly competition. It’s friendly rivalry-type stuff.

It’s like a friendship, but we still compete at the same time. It’s pretty cool. We’re all close, especially the shorts because we’re all short.”

However far Northwestern goes this season may depend on those shorties. A season ago, Northwestern’s running game was among the nation’s worst. The Wildcats ranked 89th in the country with an average of 117.8 yards per game. Their longest run for the year was 25 yards, which was the worst in the country, and they averaged 3.0 yards per carry, which was 111th.

Fields led the rushing attack last season with 302 yards and five touchdowns. Scott Concannon, who also is returning but has been injured, had 241 yards and two touchdowns. Simmons rushed for 233 yards and two touchdowns. Schmidt had 217 yards and one score. All together, the running backs had 10 touchdowns.

They all understand that isn’t going to cut it this season.

“It really comes down to us making plays,” Simmons said. “We didn’t make that many plays last year. I think we had 10 touchdowns as a whole group, which isn’t enough for one running back -- let alone four. I think that’s the biggest thing we need to improve on.”

Schmidt believes it’s important for one or two running backs to separate themselves from the group.

“We just need to improve overall on the run game, obviously,” he said. “We had three, four, five guys run the ball last year, and it didn’t work that well. We need to get it right in camp. We need to find one, two, maybe three guys that are really going to carry the rock and that can really produce. That’s what it’s going to come down to -- production.”

It looks to be Fields’ job to lose. He was at the top of the depth chart at the end of the spring season. He also held the starting spot most of last season and was impressive in spurts. He had 48 yards and two touchdowns on six carries against Towson in his college debut. He ran for 43 yards and one touchdown on nine carries against Minnesota.

But he also struggled at times as a freshman. He had 27 yards on 11 carries against Miami of Ohio. He needed 18 carries to get to 43 yards against Purdue. He had five yards on two runs against Michigan State.

Looking back, Fields described his first season as rocky.

“I’m really critical of myself,” Fields said. “I’m never satisfied. I always feel like I should have done this better, that better. I feel I learned a lot. The game’s faster. The game’s changing. The stuff I did in high school I was faster than everyone. Some of the stuff I could have done in high school, you can’t do playing football at this level. You can’t run by people.

“When they named me the starter, I was still learning a lot, still learning the playbook. I felt like everything was happening so fast. I was afraid to make a mistake. I went through this period where I was afraid to make mistakes. You can’t play football that way. I don’t want coach yelling at me. I just wanted to do everything right, but you can’t do that.”

That has changed this season. Already during the first week of camp, Fields has felt completely different. He knows the plays. He’s making the right decisions. He’s relaxed.

“I’m having a blast out here,” Fields said.

Football also is fun for Simmons again, and it all has to do with being healthy.

Last year, Simmons started off the season with a surge, and appeared as if he might be the breakout back the Wildcats needed. He ran for a career-high 77 yards on 18 carries in the season-opener against Towson. The following game, he rushed for 73 yards on 13 carries and scored a career-high two touchdowns against Eastern Michigan.

From there, his season quickly declined. His injuries began to pile up. He missed four total games due to injury and wasn’t the same the player when he was on the field. Over the last year, he has had problems with his ankles, toes and knees, but he is finally healthy.

“I’m feeling pretty good now,” Simmons said. “It’s a huge difference. I can just run. I couldn’t do that two months ago.

“For me, personally, last year was disappointing. I went out with a couple injuries. I had been injured up until recently. Now I’m just trying to get back and just trying to pick up where I left off at the beginning of the season last year. It’s my last go around. I got to get the best out of it, do everything I can to get out of it what I can, just play.”

Schmidt had his moments last season, too. After seeing limited reps as a freshman, Schmidt stepped into a role large as a sophomore and proved to be a reliable receiver out of the backfield. He started against Minnesota and Syracuse. He had two catches for 37 yards against Purdue. He had four receptions for 46 yards against Syracuse. He had 61 rushing yards against Eastern Michigan. He led Northwestern with 36 rushing yards against Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

Schmidt felt last year was a good starting point to what he wants to do this season.

“I thought I helped a lot in production, ran routes well and made some catches, made some plays,” Schmidt said. “When my number was called on third downs to get some first downs, I did. I embraced my role and I loved it, but I hope to have a little larger role this year.

“Coach Mac [running backs coach Matt MacPherson] kind of put it on the line this fall. He said, ‘I want to see one or two guys take a lead and go get the job.’ I took it upon myself for that to be a goal -- to be the one or the two and be out there every Saturday producing.”

Of course, Fields and Simmons hope the same and are just as motivated. That’s not a bad thing, according to Fields.

“Competition makes it fun,” Fields said. “Me, personally, being a competitive person, if there wasn’t competition out here, it’s kind of boring. I like somebody to say, ‘You’re not good. I’m going to take your spot.’ I like that kind of stuff. That kind of stuff makes me laugh. It makes me make work that much harder.

“I’m going to come out here and compete as hard as I can. That’s why we’re all out here. We’re all good. They trust us all to run the ball. I think we all help this team in a different way. Whoever is going to execute, do the job, make the most plays is going to be out there.”

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com