Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren has been waiting for a starting running back to emerge since summer practices began.
He may have found his answer Saturday against Tennessee-Martin. Junior running back Leighton Settle ran for the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, finishing with 107 yards.
Settle, along with Akeem Daniels, Keith Harris Jr. and Jamal Womble have all had opportunities in the backfield in the first two games of the season and Doeren said he will continue to play toward each running back’s strengths.
“We’re going to keep rolling with the guys who do what they do,” Doeren said.
Saturday’s home opener gave us an idea how NIU’s running game might look like for the rest of the season. Here’s how each of the four running backs was used against UT-Martin.
Settle, listed as the No. 2 running back on the depth chart, was the workhorse back for Doeren from the first possession.
“He had a great week of practice and I knew by Thursday he was going to have a 100-yard game because of the way he practiced,” Doeren said. “He played well, and that’s the key.”
Settle was on the field for 37 of 65 plays before the starters were lifted late in the fourth quarter and had 21 of the 30 carries given to the group of four running backs. All of Settle’s carries were runs up the middle, a couple of which he bounced outside. His longest run of the night was only 13 yards, which shows the consistency with which he ran Saturday, routinely picking up gains of five-plus yards.
Settle said the larger workload helped him get comfortable with his offensive line and Doeren plans to make him the feature back for now.
“Leighton’s probably our most consistent first- and second-down player back there,” Doeren said.
Daniels saw the second-most action among the group of four running backs, participating in 25 offensive plays.
However, Daniels’ role in the offense was drastically different than Settle’s as the junior running back had only one carry for one yard.
Although Daniels only had one reception for three yards, he lined up as a wide receiver or ran routes out of the backfield on 13 plays. He was also used in pass protection on five occasions.
“He’ll block, he’s one of our best protection backs. It’s tough when you’re a defense and it’s a five-wide or a single-back set and he can block for [QB Jordan Lynch],” Doeren said. “There’s a lot of versatility when Akeem’s the back back there.”
Doeren likes the versatility that Daniels brings and it showed as Daniels was used on 10 of 14 third-down plays.
Womble entered Saturday as the running back typically used in short-yardage situations and it played true to form in the first quarter. On NIU’s first drive, Womble picked up one yard on first-and-goal from the UT-Martin 3-yard line and then rumbled in for a rushing touchdown on the next play.
Womble was given another goal-line opportunity in the third quarter, but lost a fumble at the UT-Martin 4-yard line. The senior running back didn’t see the field after the fumble and only managed seven yards on five carries for the game.
“I was disappointed in Jamal’s fumble because he’s been playing better,” Doeren said.
KEITH HARRIS JR.
Harris had a rushing touchdown in the first half against Iowa in the season opener, but didn’t get on the field until NIU’s ninth drive of the game in the middle of the third quarter.
Like Daniels, Harris lined up as a receiver on a couple plays.
The true freshman had three carries for two yards, all of which came after the starters were pulled in the fourth quarter.