DeKALB – Jamal Womble lined up in Northern Illinois’ backfield, looking like a tight end in some zany concoction of a formation.
He took the handoff from Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish and started running left. There wasn’t much of an opening. He decided to plow through.
Ten yards and a couple missed tackles later, Womble showed why he received many of the Huskies’ first-team reps during Tuesday morning’s practice.
“He’s made the most out of the reps he’s gotten,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “Every time he’s in there he’s making plays. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
The junior doesn’t only look the part of a workhorse running back, standing 5-foot-11, 255 pounds. He’s played like one, making several difficult runs look easy. And he already knows how to talk like a workhorse running back, too.
“Definitely not easy,” Womble said. “I mean, it looks easy because of what the team’s doing, not because of what I’m doing. When the receivers are blocking, the line is blocking, it makes my job look easy.”
The concern with Womble has never been his physical ability. Up to this point, his career has taken twists and turns because of off-the-field issues.
A nationally ranked running back out of high school, Womble signed with North Carolina. But after suffering a fractured right wrist on a kickoff against Georgia Southern, ending Womble’s freshman season, his falling grades made him ineligible. Womble then transferred to Hutchinson Community College, where he played this past season.
When NIU running backs coach Eddie Faulkner watched film of Womble at Hutchinson, he knew the Huskies’ newcomer was talented. Nothing could prepare him for what the junior running back was like in person.
The first time Faulkner saw Womble live and in pads was Saturday. He said he couldn’t stop watching him move his feet in the hole.
“My first impression when I saw him on film was like, ‘Wow, this kid’s really good,’ “ Faulkner said. “But when I actually met him in person, I was shocked at how big he is. I mean, he’s 250 pounds and has speed like he’s 150.
“When they say you’re a freak, that’s a freak, because that’s not normal. He’s got hips with that, and he’s got great vision. We’ll continue to develop him, and he’s going to be an excellent player at Northern Illinois.”
Faulkner knows an excellent running back when he sees one. During his playing days at Wisconsin, Faulkner backed up Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. As running backs coach at Ball State the past several seasons, he recruited and developed two-time all-Mid-American Conference running back MiQuale Lewis.
When asked how Womble compares to some of the great running backs he’s been around, Faulkner paid the highest compliment.
“If I’ve ever been around a guy who’s cut from the same cloth as Ron Dayne, that’s the guy because they’re so similar,” Faulkner said. “I tell him that in meetings all the time. Having said that, he has a chance to be pretty special.”
Womble takes on high praise like it’s a safety. He sets his goals just as high.
Womble said he wants to be NIU’s starting running back this fall, but that’s not all he’s hoping for.
“Personally, I want to win the Doak (Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back),” said Womble, who added that his team goals were to win the MAC and go undefeated. “I want to win the Doak Walker, first team all-MAC. I mean, any accolades you can get, that’s what I want to get. You know, 1,500-plus rushing (yards), any accolades possible.”
Before he does that, Doeren said he just wants to see Womble keep developing. The running back competition isn’t a closed case, with Akeem Daniels and Jasmin Hopkins also receiving some first-team reps. But Womble has looked determined to establish himself at NIU.
Faulkner said it’s no secret why.
“I think Jamal kind of realizes that this is his last rodeo,” Faulkner said. “He started out at North Carolina, then he went to Hutchinson Community College out in Kansas, and now he’s here. I think he kind of knows, ‘Hey, this is my last chance to do the things that I want to do.’ That’s the way he’s approached it.
“I would only anticipate him continuing to do that.”