This article was originally appeared in The Daily Northwestern on October 2, 2015. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
Solomon Vault is superstitious.
He has the same game-day routine every single Saturday, right down to the order he and his roommate shower and the type of music he plays at specific times throughout the day.
But whether you believe in superstitions or not, it’s clear that something has been going right for the running back this season.
The 5-foot-10-inch sophomore has recorded 100 yards rushing through the first four games of the Wildcats’ campaign, already shattering his total from 2014. He’s also within 70 yards of exceeding his kick return yardage from last season. It’s not as if Vault suddenly blossomed into a playmaker in the offseason. For one thing, this year he’s healthy.
“We expected him to play a bigger role than he did last year, but he had some hamstring injuries that kept him out of the lineup,” said running backs coach Matt MacPherson. “Now that he’s healthy, we’ve been able to do a lot of the things we want to do with him, which has been getting him touches on kick returns, using him as a receiver, and using him as a running back.”
Not only is he healthy again, Vault said he is bigger, faster and stronger this year thanks to his offseason training plan of, in his words, “just lifting really big weights.”
That extra oomph behind his runs has already proved useful, evident in his ability to secure key first downs, as in the Ball State match up, and powerful kick returns, like his 98-yard touchdown return against Duke.
Although Vault is getting more touches on the football this year, in part due to an attempt to spread out sophomore Justin Jackson’s carries, he is also producing more on the touches he does get. Vault averaged 26.2 yards per kick return during the 2014 season, while thus far this season he’s averaging 31.6 yards per return. Likewise, he’s averaging greater yardage per rushing carry than last season.
Yet Vault has been underutilized this year as a receiver, recording only one reception. Though NU has consistent receivers in senior superback Dan Vitale and senior wide receivers Christian Jones and Miles Shuler, the Cats have yet to fully capitalize on Vault’s versatility, an asset which fellow running back Jackson considers his greatest strength.
“For [Vault] to know the whole offense, to know the ins and outs, to know receiver and tailback, I think we have to get guys like that,” Jackson said. “He has to know running back, he has to know the slot position. He’s a really good hybrid. He just knows a bunch of stuff and has a high football IQ.”
Vault is by no means the driving force behind the Cats’ offense—that would be Jackson, who has 516 yards on 118 carries through four games—but he is a vital cog in what has proved to be an extremely powerful offensive machine this season.
Vault’s efforts, combined with those of fellow running backs Jackson, junior Warren Long, redshirt freshman Auston Anderson, and surprisingly, redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, have catapulted NU into one of the top 15 rushing offenses in the country. The Cats sit 14th in the country and 1st in the Big Ten in rushing offense as they start conference play this Saturday against Minnesota.
And although he’s not exactly a standout, MacPherson said that Vault has begun to encapsulate a very specific role within the group of backs.
“He’s kind of become the guy I really turn to on third down, because he has great ball skills, he’s a fast guy, and he’s a really aggressive pass protector,” MacPherson said. “He can go out there and block a 250-pound linebacker as well as split them out and run a route. He allows me some versatility out there.”
Vault’s versatility and tenacious pass protection make him a vital player in NU’s close-knit cadre of backs, but Jackson said he also fills another role: the calmer. Jackson said Vault’s focused demeanor is crucial to the mindset and play of the group, particularly when the Cats fall behind.
“He’s just a funny dude. He’s as cool as the other side of the pillow, he never gets too flustered,” Jackson said. “He’s a cool, calm, level-headed guy and he just goes out there and he plays, and he’s got a lot of talent.”