The youngest player in a crowded backfield, Northwest Missouri State redshirt freshman Justin Fulks has emerged this spring as a potential replacement for dynamic all-purpose back Jordan Simmons.
Fulks is being used as both a tailback and slot receiver, the same roles Simmons played during each of his last three seasons at Northwest.
Like they did with Simmons—a four-year contributor—the Bearcat coaches view Fulks as someone who can be a difference-maker right away.
"We really feel like if we were going to play a game tomorrow, he'd be our starting slot receiver" said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "Right now, he's our best pure running back as far as running the stretch and zone play. He's very talented."
The 5-11 Fulks was one of three players from Blue Valley (Kan.) High School to sign with Northwest as part of Dorrel's first recruiting class in 2012. The others were quarterback Kyle Zimmerman and defensive end Chris Foster.
Fulks was a three-year starter at Blue Valley and earned all-state honors his junior and senior seasons, both of which ended in the state championship game.
As a senior, Fulks ran for over 1,800 yards with 21 touchdowns and caught 22 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns.
Highly thought of at the time of his signing, Fulks is one of the only Bearcat redshirt freshmen poised to contribute next season.
The player he's being groomed to replace—Simmons—saw significant playing time as a redshirt freshman and went on to become an all-conference running back/return man.
He was Northwest's second leading rusher last year with 546 yards and tied for the team lead in receptions with 54.
Simmons, who is drawing some NFL interest, teamed with James Franklin III to form one of the country's most electric backfield combos each of the last two seasons.
His departure leaves Franklin III, an upcoming senior, on his own, but Fulks, Billy Creason, Kohlman Adema-Schulte and Denver Lohnes provide more than enough capable tandem options.
"We're not going to have any shortage of tailbacks, I'll tell you that," said Dorrel. "That's a good problem to have because the kids athletically are so good we can move them around."
Franklin III has not participated in any of Northwest's spring practices thus far because of a previous medical condition that Dorrel said he couldn't talk about.
This has allowed Northwest's back-up contingent to get more first-team reps than they would've otherwise.
An emphasis for Northwest's runners this spring has been to get up the field as much as possible.
"We had some great plays last year running the football, but we're trying to get more downhill instead of trying to go outside," said Northwest Missouri State offensive coordinator Charlie Flohr. "We've really tried to establish that part of our run game this spring."
Page 2 of 2 - Much more of a perimeter running threat, Franklin III is entering his third season as a starter after transferring from Nebraska-Omaha.
His production dipped last season due to a slow start and an injury late that caused him to miss most of the team's two playoff games. He finished with 733 yards, down from his league-high total of 1,247 the year before, but averaged 5.0 yards per carry.
A two-year back-up after starting four games in 2010, Creason was Northwest's third leading rusher last year with 422 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per attempt.
He filled in for the injured Franklin III and Simmons in the team's 35-0 first round playoff win over Harding and ran for 113 yards and a touchdown.
Adema-Schulte, a hole-hitting junior, finished the year with 171 yards and played in 12 games. Lohnes, a sophomore, played in six.
"Certainly, it's a goal of mine and it's a goal of the offensive line and the offensive staff to have a 1,000 yard rusher next year," said Dorrel. "If it's James, great. If it's Billy, if it's Kohlman, right now I can't tell you who that is going to be. I certainly don't see us running more than two tailbacks."