As much as Northwestern misses the accurate arm of Mason Rudolph and the sweet feet of Dupree Hart, the Trojans miss their last two quarterbacks’ steely leadership in the huddle, in practice, off the field. Throw Justin Worley into that mix and it’s been a while since Northwestern didn’t have an established leader taking the snaps every offensive play.
Don’t pity the 2015 Trojans, though.
Kyle Richardson’s offense is loaded at every skill position – a Troy warship three deep at every oar. Eight players, including last season’s top-six leading pass-catchers, are competing for four starting receiver spots. It’s the first time since Richardson has been at Northwestern that there isn’t a drop-off from the first four to the second four.
“We can take those eight and mix and match them, and that’s given them a lot of chances to catch a lot of balls in practice,” said Richardson.
The Trojans averaged nearly six yards per carry last season, and are stacked in the backfield again this year. Leading returning rusher Jerry Howard is up to 215 pounds, while sophomore Daquez Harris checks in at 200 pounds.
They’re really big backs, they’re really strong and they can move pretty good.
Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson on his starting backfield duo of Jerry Howard and Daquez Harris
“We usually don’t roll with big running backs like that, but it is what it is,” said Richardson. “They’re our two running backs, we love them and we built our run game around them.”
It isn’t the talent - on either side of the ball - that concerns Richardson heading into Northwestern’s opener later this week at Byrnes.
Northwestern’s offensive unit ran three shadow drives to conclude last Monday’s practice. Each mental mistake – against no defense – that Richardson noticed equaled a sprint to midfield and back for the entire unit. The group ended up doing just one sprint, which seems pretty good, but wasn’t good enough for a demanding coach such as Richardson.
“We’re a young group from an age standpoint, but we’re also a young group from an experience standpoint,” he said.
“We don’t have that true leader. Mason wasn’t a rah-rah guy, Justin (Worley) wasn’t a rah-rah guy, Gerald Dixon Jr. wasn’t a rah-rah guy, but they were just leaders by example. Their work ethic, their effort, people would obviously want to keep up with their pace. We’re looking for the same thing.
“We’re not looking for a lot of guys to talk about it. We want them to show us the effort in practice and walk the walk. That just comes with time.”
Starting jobs are up for grabs on offense, including the highest profile position at Northwestern, quarterback.
Gage Moloney and Will Hagood have sparred the last month since Moloney arrived after transferring from James Island. The 6-foot-2 left-handed junior threw for more than 2,000 yards last fall with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Hagood played as Hart’s backup last season and also punted. Richardson said this past week would be a clear opportunity for one of the competitors to get ahead in the race. The Trojans tackled scrimmages with Butler (N.C.), Spartanburg and Union County.
6Northwestern returns its top six receivers from 2014, meaning whoever grabs the starting QB job will have plenty of targets
“It’s been a great competition up to this point but neither one has separated himself,” Richardson said. “With the three scrimmages coming up they’regonna get equal amounts of snaps on Tuesday versus Butler and Thursday versus Spartanburg, and we’ll see how we go from there. Barring something drastically changing, both of them have done a good enough job and competed and put themselves in a position where both of them will play versus Byrnes. I just don’t know what capacity yet.”
Uncertainty is a common theme with this Northwestern team. With transfers and new untested starters in several positions, but glaring talent across the board, it’s difficult to decide what to make of this bunch. Only the games will tell, especially with the quarterbacks.
“You don’t know what the response is gonna be,” said Richardson. “You don’t know what the response is gonna be the first time they get sacked... the first time they throw an interception. You don’t know what the response is gonna be the first time they throw a touchdown pass and they come to the sidelines and everybody’s cheering. So that’s the biggest thing right now.”