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Burning question #2: Replacing Spann at tailback

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Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 12:02 am

 It’s probably good that junior-college transfer http://www.niuhuskies.com/sports/m-footbl/mtt/womble_jamal00.html" target="_blank">Jamal Womble never saw Chad Spann run for the http://www.niuhuskies.com/sports/m-footbl/niu-m-footbl-body.html" target="_blank">NIU football team.

Spann racked up 49 career touchdowns to go along with 2,916 rushing yards in his four years in DeKalb. In 2010, he picked up the Vern Smith Award as the MAC’s MVP. In short, the man created some pretty big shoes to fill.

On paper, there may be no one better to fill those shoes than Womble. Coming out of high school, Rivals.com had him ranked as the 13th best tailback in the country.

“I had a lot of options coming out of high school,” Womble said. “I could have pretty much gone anywhere.”

The Arizona native committed to North Carolina and had 41 yards on six carries as a freshman, before breaking his wrist in the Tar Heels’ sixth game of 2009.

Upon becoming academically ineligible at UNC, Womble transferred to Hutchinson Community College. In nine games for the Blue Dragons in 2010, he rushed for eight touchdowns and 712 yards on 126 carries.

Womble initially hoped to return to North Carolina, but wavered when he found interest elsewhere. Then-NIU head coach Jerry Kill offered Womble a scholarship before leaving for Minnesota. Some thought the burly back would follow Kill after the coach’s departure.

The running back chose DeKalb, however, since NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz had the most contact with him while at Hutchinson.

“Because I was the lead recruiter there, that’s where the relationship started,” Matukewicz said. “It’s pretty easy to sell Northern Illinois. This is the coldest place on Earth, and at the end of the day, people win here because of our ability to run and the ball and I told Jamal that.”

Through the first three weeks of spring practices, Womble has shared first-team reps with Akeem Daniels. A sophomore from Kissimmee, Fla., Daniels spent the majority of last fall at wide receiver before switching to tailback late in the season.

At 5’7”, 180 pounds, the sophomore provides a change from the bulky Womble (5’11”, 246 pounds).

“You got one guy that can pound the rock and another that can run by people,” said NIU head coach http://www.niuhuskies.com/sports/m-footbl/mtt/doeren_dave00.html" target="_blank">Dave Doeren. “The thing I like about Akeem is that he can run behind the lineman, you can’t find him, and then he’ll stick his foot in the ground and hit it.”

In addition to Daniels and Womble, sophomore Leighton Settle and senior Jasmin Hopkins have been consistently working with Chandler Harnish and the starting offensive line. Doeren believes the running back position is the most hotly contested job on the team, and has treated it accordingly.

“We’re rotating guys in and seeing what their skill set is,” Doeren said. “Until one says ‘I’m the guy,’ we are going to continue to do that.”

A dark horse to consider for 2011 is redshirt senior Cameron Bell. After transferring from Iowa State for the 2010 season, Bell ran for 228 yards on 29 carries in his first season with the Huskies. Bell went down with a hamstring injury in the third practice of the spring and has since been relegated to the sidelines.

With so much competition, each running back is coming to practice looking to help the team anyway they can.

“I’m just trying to give it that extra effort to separate myself from everybody,” Daniels said. “But right now I’m not worrying about being starter or last on the depth chart; I’m just trying to win.”

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