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Injuries have forced Northwestern’s Fitzgerald to use 7 rushers already

Western Michigan v Northwestern

Western Michigan v Northwestern

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Updated: September 16, 2013 12:32AM

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said playing freshman running back Warren Long in the Wildcats’ 38-17 victory over Western Michigan on Saturday had nothing to do with the long-term health of Venric Mark.

Long deserved to play. He has practiced well all season. But considering how serious Fitzgerald takes the decision to play a true freshman, it’s difficult to believe the move wasn’t made at least somewhat out of necessity.

The Wildcats’ depth at running back has been challenged all season.

Mark played sporadically in Northwestern’s 44-30 victory Aug. 31 at California. He saw action on the first drive, then sat out awhile before playing again in the fourth quarter. He didn’t see action on kick or punt returns.

Since that game, Mark hasn’t fully practiced. Fitz­gerald has maintained that his senior running back is day-to-day with a lower-body injury but didn’t play him against Syracuse or Western Michigan.

“He’s feeling better and better,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s getting impatient. He wants to play. But we’re taking a long-term, smart approach to hopefully make sure that when he does come back, he’s 100 percent and ready to go.”

Stephen Buckley practiced last week with a cast on his arm. Quarterback Kain Colter verified after the game Saturday that the redshirt freshman running back has been dealing with a wrist injury.

Injuries to Buckley and Mark have forced Northwestern to use seven running backs this season — Mark, Buckley, Long, Tim Hanrahan, Malin Jones, Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy.

“With ‘V’ being out and Buckley messing up his wrist, we’re getting a little thin in that area,” Colter said. “So he [Long] stepped in and had a few nice runs, and hopefully we can see more of him.”

Making the decision to play Long even more puzzling is that Fitzgerald has made a point to compliment the work of Jones, a redshirt freshman. Yet Jones has carried the ball three times all season. Jones also has lined up as a receiver.

To the Wildcats, depth at running back might be more important than at any other position. Running the read-option can expose players to a higher risk of injury, and Fitzgerald likes to use those running backs on special teams. Jones, Long, Buckley and Hanrahan have played in some capacity on special teams this season.

Northwestern also likes to use multiple running backs in one formation. The Wildcats have used three running backs in the backfield and split them out as receivers.

The group’s solid play, particularly that of Green, has minimized Mark’s loss. Fitzgerald said Green has earned consideration to be the No. 1 running back even when Mark, the presumptive starter, returns.

“We’ll play to the guys’ strengths, and I think Trey is just playing at a really high level right now and he’s definitely earned that opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “But it’s got nothing to do with V.”


Twitter: @SethGruen

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