When Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff recruited Minnesota native Evan Hull in high school, they saw potential that not many major-college programs did, including the Gophers.
Hull, the all-time leading rusher at Maple Grove, is grateful that the Wildcats "took a chance on me," he said.
Two years later, Northwestern's starting sophomore tailback plays the Gophers (5-2) on Saturday, trying to show the entire Big Ten — not just his home-state program — what they're missing.
"A lot of things put a chip on my shoulder, and I used them as fuel coming out of Minnesota," Hull said. "Wanting to prove them wrong and my [Northwestern] coaches right."
Hull, who had a 75-yard touchdown run for the Wildcats (3-4) in last week's 33-7 loss at Michigan, ranks seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (91.9) and fifth in yards per carry (6.4).
After projected starter Cam Porter suffered a season-ending leg injury in August, Hull was the next in line after a strong fall camp. He didn't disappoint, rushing for 87 yards in the season opener vs. Michigan State, followed by 126 yards against Indiana State.
A career-best 216 yards in a win against Ohio on Sept. 25 was Hull's second career 200-yard performance, the other being in his first career start as a freshman vs. Massachusetts in 2019.
Northwestern running backs coach Louis Ayeni, a former Woodbury standout and member of the Wildcats' 2000 Big Ten championship team, was responsible for recruiting Hull.
After two years showing glimpses of talent as a primary backup, Hull said Ayeni wanted to see him prepare for a bigger role. They worked on strengthening Hull's legs to become a more physical runner through contact, instead of just relying on his big-play ability.
"I had some great conversations with the strength coach and Coach Lou about what I needed to do," Hull said. "When I pulled back and was smarter about what I did extra, in the weight room or in the playbook, that's when things started to really work out for me. I started making plays."
Hull already has more carries through seven games than he did his first two seasons combined (101 to 71). His 90-yard run against Ohio is the second longest in the Big Ten this year behind Kenneth Walker III's 94-yarder for Michigan State. Walker and Hull are the only Big Ten backs with multiple runs of 75 yards or longer this year.
Fitzgerald described Hull as tough, gritty, and all-around player who "embraced being that feature back" once Northwestern was hit by injuries.
"We were really excited with him and Cam going into the season," Fitzgerald said. "If he continues on this path, he puts himself in the conversation to be an All-Big Ten-level back. That's what we thought would happen in recruiting as he developed."
Last weekend against Michigan, the Wildcats cut their deficit to 10-7 in the second quarter after Hull's 75-yard TD run, but Fitzgerald's ground attack took a back seat once Northwestern fell too far behind in the second half.
Hull rushed just six times for 81 yards, his fewest carries in a game this season. His worst performances this year (31 yards vs. Nebraska and 49 yards vs. Duke) appeared to be a result of inconsistent offensive line play as much as anything.
"We've got to be better at running the football," Fitzgerald said. "That's how we are built. That's what we want to be able to do. It opens up everything else."
In his only other game against the Gophers, Hull had 14 carries for 51 yards his freshman year in 2019, but Northwestern fell 38-22 at home.
The Wildcats are eager to get back on track with another Big Ten win Saturday at Ryan Field, but Hull said he also has something a bit more to play for against Minnesota.
"It always means a little more playing the hometown team for sure," Hull said. "We didn't get a chance to play them last year because of COVID-19. It's just exciting, honestly, because I know a lot of guys on the team."