Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill didn’t hide his affinity for the running back corps that will take the field this fall.
With four players that each have the ability to start and bring something different to the field, Kill likened this year’s running backs not only to the ones from past Northern Illinois teams, but also to the ones he had at Southern Illinois, which at one point included star back Brandon Jacobs.
“I think we’re more like we were at Southern [Illinois] and I think we‘re more like what [Coach] Joe [Novak] had during the very good years,” Kill said during the Mid-American Conference coaches call this week. “I think Cameron Bell and [Jasmin] Hopkins were better than I thought they would be and I think we’ll be as deep in the backfield as we’ve been.”
Chad Spann, last year’s starter, was held out of spring practices because of offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. That allowed players such as Ricky Crider, Iowa State transfer Bell, and junior college transfer Hopkins to emerge.
Crider was the biggest surprise since he hadn’t played much since before he broke his leg against Wisconsin in 2007. He carried the ball just 43 times in 2008 and was almost nonexistent in 2009 with 10 carries for 37 yards.
But this spring, he ran confidently and was so good that he didn’t play in the final scrimmage because the coaching staff already knew what he could do. As of right now, it appears Crider will be Spann’s backup and could play the same role Me’co Brown played a year ago.
Spann was the workhorse last season with 179 carries for 1,038 yards and 19 touchdowns, but this year could be more of a committee system. Kill has had success shuffling multiple running backs before. At Southern Illinois in 2003, Kill had Muhammad Abdulqaadir, Tom Koutsos and Brandon Robinson, who combined to rush for 2,453 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Salukis ranked sixth nationally in the FCS in rushing offense. A year later, Southern Illinois boasted Brandon Jacobs, Arkee Whitlock and Terry Jackson as their premier backs and ranked third in the FCS with 3,404 yards and 42 touchdowns.
This year’s stable of running Huskies has the chance to compare to stellar running backs corps of the past, including the trio of Michael Turner, A.J. Harris and Adrian Davis in 2003 and Garrett Wolfe, A.J. Harris and Adrian Davis in 2004.
“I think this, without a doubt, with those four youngsters right now, is the best we’ve been since we’ve been here,” Kill said.