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Hopkins looks to continue NIU’s strong running tradition

Senior JasmHopkins is frontrunner for NIU’s starting tailback job this season. | Phocourtesy NIU

Senior Jasmin Hopkins is the frontrunner for NIU’s starting tailback job this season. | Photo courtesy of NIU

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Updated: November 5, 2011 1:16PM

DEKALB — Of this, Northern Illinois’ Dave Doeren is certain. The Army team he faces in his first game as a collegiate head coach, much like the pre-Mike Martz Bears, will get off their bus running.

While that’s a given with coach Rich Ellerson’s triple option attack, the Black Knights’ defense will have similar concerns.

It may not be known as Tailback U of the Midwest, but Northern has a built a pretty good history of producing standout running backs. Eleven of them in the past 12 seasons, in fact, have topped the 1,000-yard mark.

The program went NCAA Division I in 1969 and fullback Mark Kellar became the first Huskie in the school’s “major” era to top that barrier when he ran for 1,316 yards in the 1972 season. In the 38 seasons since, Huskie runners have eclipsed 1,000 yards 23 times in a season, including Kellar’s nation-leading 1,719 in 1973. Chad Spann did it the past two, winning the Mid-American Conference’s MVP Award in the process last year in his senior season.

So the question is, who’s got next?

The frontrunner is senior Jasmin Hopkins, who rushed 38 times for 366 yards (9.6 average) last season after transferring from Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. Hopkins, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds but admits he’s really 5-7, is both fast and elusive. With five starters returning on the offensive line to run behind, he may revive memories of Garrett Wolfe who had three straight 1,000-yard seasons for Northern.

“This is a very special year for me,” said Hopkins, who was not an academic qualifier coming out of high school in Stanley, N.C. “I want to go out in a good way.”

Hopkins carries a chip on his shoulder and says he’s always out to prove himself after reading in several papers that he’s “a longshot to do this or that.”

“I went to a prep school for one semester out of high school and then went the junior college route,” he said. “And there, it wasn’t guaranteed. They had a 12-man (per team) out-of-state rule, so you had about a hundred guys competing for those 12 spots.”

Hopkins made it and was named NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year in 2009 after leading the nation in rushing (1,931 yards) and helping lead the Greyhounds to the national championship game, where they were beaten by a team quarterbacked by future Auburn standout Cam Newton.

“Man, Fort Scott (a town of about 8,000 in southeastern Kansas), there’s really nothing out there but a McDonald’s and a Wal-Mart, but it was a good experience,” Hopkins said.

His coach (Jeff Sims) has sinced moved to become an assistant coach who is head of recruiting at Indiana University.

“In the championship, they got us in the last 30 seconds,” Hopkins said “We got big-headed and were celebrating on the sidelines. It was a 95 percent chance I was gonna get MVP (of the game) and I turned around and they ran a punt back in the last 30 seconds to beat us.”

Last year, the Huskies were beaten in the final minute by Miami with a tipped pass on fourth down being the key play for the Redhawks.

“I had the same exact feeling (as in 2009),” Hopkins sai. “It was awful to see that again.”

It led him to address his teammates in preseason camp and stress the need for this year’s team to finish.

“I’m taking that to heart,” he said. “The last two years I’ve lost in a championship game in the last 30 seconds. No way I’m gonna do that this year.”

Backing up Hopkins on the NIU depth chart are 5-7, 183-pound sophomore Akeem Daniels, who moved to tailback from slot back in spring practice; 5-11, 246-pound junior Jamal Womble, a transfer from Hutchinson CC; and 5-10, 194-pound sophomore Leighton Settle, a transfer from Fresno City Community College. Settle’s dad coached with Doeren at Wisconsin.

“The way we’re going to run the ball, we’re going to play more than one,” Doeren said. “There’s not a back in our offense that could take over 13, 14 games by themselves because of the protection things they have to do. You have to have depth to be fresh at that position.

“I think the one guy that continues to get better is Settle. He’s really improved and was probably the most raw of the four when he came here. Womble’s gotten in much better shape and is running with a burst. He’s always been durable. And Jas is a bit of a blend of all them and he’s a very hungry guy. He runs with a purpose.”

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