Returning seven starters on offense who gained some postseason exposure last year adds to the list of Northwest’s strengths ahead of their first kickoff against Missouri Western in less than two weeks.

Northwest currently ranks fourth in the MIAA in rushing offense with an average of 205.8 yards per game. Missouri Western edges them at third with 219.5 yards.

The Bearcats return a total of 13 starters, both on offense and defense, including top rusher Isaiah Strayhorn. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder from Chula Vista, California, rushed for a team-high 874 yards and seven touchdowns in his 2018 campaign.

The senior running back rushed for a career-high 171 yards with 15.5 yards per carry and two touchdowns on only 11 carries in the team’s 42-17 NCAA playoff win at Grand Valley State last year.

Strayhorn is fourth in the MIAA in rushers with an average of 67.2 yards per game.

Northwest, however, must replace star running back Josh Caldwell who had a team-high 139 carries and tied for the team-lead in rushing touchdowns with 11 in 2018. After a stint with the Kansas City Chiefs at training camp followed by a preseason game touchdown, the free agent joined the Chicago Bears ahead of the NFL season.

Northwest does yield some new talent looking to make prominent debuts. Head coach Rich Wright said adding players to the team, however, involves adjustment.

“It’s kind of a work in progress getting them acclimated to our system, our language and our starting quarterback. It takes time to develop the cohesion,” said Wright.

Senior transfer running back Justin Rankin played three seasons at Kent State. The 5-foot-10, 210 pound senior from Oberlin, Ohio rushed for 574 yards and four touchdowns along with 14 receptions, 127 receiving yards and a touchdown in 2018.

Cameron Purvis the 5-foot-10, 177 pound redshirt freshman from Omaha, Nebraska, along with the 6-foot, 186 pounder Robert rawie from Liberty, Missouri, are two redshirt freshmen who can also make a debut this season.

The Bearcats return other running backs on the roster looking to impact the offense.

Raymond Thomas, the 5-foot-7, 178 pound redshirt sophomore from Bradenton, Florida, saw action in nine games last year and made two starts. However, he injured his knee at Northeastern State in October 2018 and missed the rest of the season.

Thomas posted 487 all-purpose yards last season and caught at least one pass in all nine games he played.

Austin Stuhr from Bradshaw, Nebraska, played in one game last year, but did not record a statistic. The 6-foot, 190 pound redshirt sophomore set the Nebraska single season rushing record in 2016 with 3,185 yards.

Hoping to pull out all the stops this year offensively, Wright added Northwest looks for players who are ‘intrinsically motivated’ and who want to be ‘great’ alongside the success of the program.

“I think sometimes people get caught up with the sexy of what they see on tape and they miss the character component. We’re big advocates on finding the character component and finding our kind of guy,” Wright said. “You get like-minded individuals together, it keeps the success train rolling.”

Northwest opens the 2019 season on Thursday, Sept. 5, at Missouri Western. The Bearcats home opener is set for Saturday, September 14 at 1:30 p.m. versus the Washburn Ichabods.

Micaela Dea can be reached

at Follow her on Twitter: NPNowDea

Micaela Dea is a sports reporter for News-Press NOW. She graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Growing up in San Diego, Micaela loves to travel, meet new people, and tell stories. Have a story idea? Don't hesitate to email!