|The offensive lines at Lake Forest and North Central are creating holes for new running backs in 2018.
Photo by Andrew Taylor
By Adam Turer
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Replacing a star player at a key position is never an easy task. But it certainly helps to have another star player returning to the same backfield.
Both North Central and Lake Forest graduated All-America running backs. Both returned all-conference quarterbacks. The teams have taken different approaches to filling the starting roles vacated by NCC’s Austin Breunig and LFC’s Joey Valdivia.
In the Foresters’ season-opening win over Wisconsin Lutheran last week, sophomore Alex Adams emerged as the new workhorse, carrying 22 times for 102 yards and a score.
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In North Central’s 2018 debut, a 70-14 win over Lake Forest on Saturday, Dom Muoghalu rushed 11 times for 125 yards and three touchdowns. Four other Cardinals, including quarterback Broc Rutter, also rushed for scores.
“I knew it was going to be big shoes to fill with Austin leaving so I knew I had to put my head to the grindstone and just work as hard as I can to fill those shoes,” said Muoghalu, who served as NCC’s short-yardage specialist in 2017. “I knew that people were expecting there to be a drop-off so I wanted to make sure there was no drop-off and, if anything, a step forward in the offense.”
The coaching staff knew that it would take a committee to replace Breunig’s production. But the Cardinals have typically featured a more balanced rushing attack. Breunig’s one-man performance was the exception. To that end, there are nine freshman running backs on this year’s roster. Three of them -- Ethan Greenfield, Terrence Hill, and Jack Kegel -- added touchdowns in their collegiate debut. They continue to lean on the veteran experience of Muoghalu.
“Dom is such a calming presence for these guys. That's really really tough to replace, that blazing speed [that Breunig had]. I think these young guys have a little bit of that, they're not quite as fast but there's some shake to them and they broke tackles. And so did Dom,” said Cardinals coach Jeff Thorne. “Dom was fantastic. That was really really good to see because that was a big question for us coming in: how are we going to be at running back after losing Austin? There's a lot of different skill sets that those kids have that we'll leverage as we go. So it was really good to see that.”
Lake Forest is still trying to find its way after Valdivia’s graduation. The North Central defense held Adams to just 13 yards on 13 carries in the Foresters’ second game of the season. The offense has a different look in 2018.
“We didn't just lose Joey, we also lost three of the five starters on the offensive line, so that didn't help either. For us now it's trying to get in that rhythm of how does it fit?” said Foresters coach Jim Catanzaro. “We've actually had to change our run game a little bit because of what Joey's style was at 220 pounds. Alex is a 180-pound guy. We can't expect him to run the same type of offense. I think with the quarterback play, that will alleviate that throughout the season. But the quarterback can't be on his back in order to try to do that.”
Both teams are leaning on the savvy and leadership of their talented quarterbacks. Jagan Cleary passed for 300 yards in Lake Forest’s season-opening win. He struggled against an impressive NCC defense that held LFC to just 188 yards of offense. Despite Valdivia’s graduation, Lake Forest is not counting on Cleary to do anything more than he has done through his first three seasons running the offense. He just needs his supporting cast to develop around him.
“From the day we got Jagan we thought he was the best quarterback in the country for Division III. He's broken every record we have so we haven't been disappointed at all. The problem is, you've got to keep him upright to give him a chance to do all that stuff,” said Catanzaro. “We don't want him to do more. We want him to do the exact same thing he was doing last year. If he starts pressing to do that extra, now we have to change our offense. We're still going to try to run the ball 25 to 30 times a game. We don't want him to do more. Anybody who tries to do more, it's just ‘No, do your job.’ Just do your job. If you do that, we'll be better.”
The Cardinals are in a similar position. Rutter is as talented as any quarterback in the country and shook off a shaky first quarter to dominate over the second and third quarters. The running backs breaking into new or expanded roles know that they have a signal-caller more than capable of setting them up to succeed.
“Broc's a natural leader, so being out there with him there's a sense of comfort that you have because you know he's gonna do his one-eleventh every single time,” said Muoghalu, also a high school teammate of Rutter’s. “There's a sense of comfort. I'm happy to be on his side.”
The influx of first-year talent in the backfield was exciting for the quarterback who enters the season with high expectations both on him and for his team.
“It's nice to see those running backs get going. We've got so many and they all do different things. You can't replace a guy like Austin, but this came as no surprise to us. These running backs were making plays all throughout camp,” said Rutter. “They've done a great job, they have a great work ethic and they work well together. They've bought in. They're special athletes so it's fun to watch them. I just put the ball in their hands and let them make the plays.”
The freshmen embraced the challenge of collectively filling the shoes of Breunig. They have enjoyed the support of their veteran teammates who have made sure that the pressure does not weigh on them. They don’t have to be Austin Breunig or play just like him. They just have to run in their own style and let the yards pile up.
“The program just keeps everyone together and makes sure everyone's on the same page. I've never met a team that is so bought-in to the program and everyone on the team is going to do whatever they have to do to get to that goal,” said Greenfield. “Everyone's looking out for each other and that's just something that's really special.”
Despite graduating one of the nation’s and program’s best running backs, expectations for this year’s Cardinals squad are as high as ever. They feel close to getting over the hump and advancing to the Stagg Bowl if they can just take care of a few more little things.
“We've got to play championship-level defense. We've got a special quarterback and a special group of receivers. We've got one of the best offensive linemen in the country in Sharmore Clarke,” said Thorne. “How these young kids progress is really going to be the secret to this year's team. If these young guys can be as good as we think they can be, then we can make a run at it, especially with the kind of quarterback we have.”
With a young, deep, and talented group of running backs behind him, Rutter feels confident that this year’s squad can make a deep run. It started on Saturday at Lake Forest, and the results--637 yards of offense, 70 points, eight rushing touchdowns--look promising.
Said Rutter, “We have a ton of leaders and we all have the same goal in mind: we all want to do something we've never done here.”
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