Rating the Big Ten running backs.

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Last updated: 02/09/2011 11:48 PM
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Rating the Big Ten Running Backs
By Tony Gerdeman

Last week we took a look at the Big Ten quarterbacks and threw some rankings on them. Today we examine the running backs. And in some instances, the running quarterbacks. After all, for some teams, that's all of the running game they've got.

1 Wisconsin
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Montee Ball (996 yards rushing, 18 TDs), James White (1,052 yards rushing, 14 TDs), Zach Brown (279 yards rushing, TDs in '09), Melvin Gordon (Fr.), Jeff Lewis (r-Fr.), Bradie Ewing (FB)

There's little doubt that either Montee Ball or James White would be a candidate to lead the conference in rushing if they weren't splitting carries. Though, if you think about it, they put up 2,000 yards rushing together and now they don't have to worry about losing carries to John Clay any longer. In other words, they ARE still both candidates to lead the conference in rushing. Both Ball and White averaged 13 carries per game last year. Depending on how the quarterback situation works out, there's little reason they can't both average 18 carries per game in 2011. Add in Zach Brown, who was redshirted simply because there was too much talent in front of him, and true freshman Melvin Gordon, who was offered by nearly all of the Big Ten, and once again the Badgers will have the talent to be running amok.

2 Michigan State
Starter: Edwin Baker (1,201 yards rushing, 13 TDs)
Key Backups: Le'Veon Bell (605 yards rushing, 8 TDs), Larry Caper (144 yards rushing, 2 TDs), Onaje Miller (Fr.)

Just a sophomore last year, Edwin Baker got the first extensive action of his career and cranked out 1,200 yards because of it. He has tremendous balance, very good power, and enough speed to outrun defenders. He can make the first man miss, run over the second, and outrace everybody else. Le'Veon Bell surprised everybody except for the Spartan coaches last year. He burst onto the scene with 549 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in his first six college games. However, in his final seven games, he totaled 56 yards rushing and zero touchdowns. Consider the freshman wall impacted. Larry Caper actually led Michigan State in rushing as a freshman in 2009, but in two seasons now he has yet to average four yards per carry. They need the Bell of old and the Caper of never-before in order to reach their potential. Onaje Miller is a speedy four-star back that could provide more of a homerun threat to the Spartan running game.

3 Ohio State
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Jordan Hall (161 yards rushing, 2 TDs), Jaamal Berry (266 yards rushing, 1 TD), Carlos Hyde (141 yards rushing), Roderick Smith (r-Fr.), Boom Herron (1,155 yards rushing, 16 TDs), Zach Boren (FB)
Additionally: Terrelle Pryor (754 yards rushing, 4 TDs), Braxton Miller (Fr.)

Barring any reduction in his suspension, Boom Herron and his 1,155 yards will be taking a five-game hiatus, so you can't factor him fully into these rankings. That doesn't mean all is lost for the Buckeyes, however. Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry (perhaps Berry more specifically) have both produced in their limited opportunities and there are those who are convinced that they are both 1,000-yard backs with Herron's number of carries. However, they haven't done it yet. The wildcard in the mix may be Roderick Smith, whose legend grows with every passing day despite nobody having ever seen him on an actual college football field. Carlos Hyde averaged 5.9 yards per carry last year, and if he can improve his ball security, he should be able to top the 24 carries he received as a true freshman. This group has the potential to be better than Michigan State's, especially given the unknown nature of Bell and Caper of late.

4 Nebraska
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Rex Burkhead (951 yards rushing, 7 TDs), Aaron Green (Fr.), Ameer Abdullah (Fr.), Tyler Legate (FB)
Additionally: Taylor Martinez (965 yards rushing, 12 TDs)

Despite terming him a “Potential Starter”, Rex Burkhead will almost certainly be the Huskers' starting running back on opening day. He had 172 carries last season, but his long was only 33 yards. He's consistent, but he's not necessarily dynamic. He runs the wildcat well, and is actually a threat to throw the ball. Taylor Martinez also factors into this discussion, and it's a good thing for the Huskers that they play Wisconsin and Ohio State the first two weeks of October, as it's less likely Martinez will be completely beaten up yet. Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah are two explosive freshmen, though neither is a tackle-breaker yet. Green has tremendous slashing ability, and because of the lack of depth at running back, they could look to him to help out right from the start.

5 Michigan
Starter: Vincent Smith (601 yards rushing, 5 TDs)
Key Backups: Michael Shaw (402 yards rushing, 9 TDs), Stephen Hopkins (151 yards rushing, 4 TDs), Michael Cox (56 yards rushing), Justice Hayes (Fr.), Fitzgerald Toussaint (87 yards rushing, 1 TD)
Additionally: Denard Robinson (1,702 yards rushing, 14 TDs)

Just based on their running backs, the Wolverines would probably be somewhere around eighth on this list, but you can't talk about their backs without including the guy who actually led the conference in rushing—Denard Robinson. Vincent Smith is too small to be a featured back in the Big Ten, Michael Shaw doesn't have the vision, and despite his size (6'0” 227), Stephen Hopkins hasn't really shown himself to be all that brutish. Fitzgerald Toussaint has yet to be healthy for an entire week, let alone an entire month, let alone an entire season. Michael Cox is an enigma who produces when given the opportunity, but apparently can do nothing else correctly. Justice Hayes will get a look from Brady Hoke, but he's still got a lot of bodies to pass as he climbs his hill.

6 Penn State
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Silas Redd (437 yards rushing, 2 TDs), Stephfon Green (188 yards rushing, 1 TD), Curtis Dukes (16 yards rushing), Brandon Beachum (113 yards rushing, 1 TD in 2009), Joe Suhey (FB)

The expectation here is for Silas Redd to emerge and take over the starting spot. He was impressive as a freshman last season, averaging 5.7 yards per carry despite not having any that were over 30 yards. Obviously, they want more explosion out of him, and it will come, but you have to like his consistency to average nearly six yards per carry without any homeruns to pad his average. Stephfon Green was explosive as a freshman in 2008 when he rushed for 578 yards, but he's been less productive each successive season. Brandon Beachum missed last season with a knee injury, so there's clearly some question over how productive he will be this season. Curtis Dukes is big (6'2” 235), but he was wasted last year as a true freshman, getting just two carries. He wants to play this season, and there has been some rumored disgruntlement on his behalf, so they may want to appease him. Except Joe Paterno doesn't really appease much of anybody, so perhaps Dukes should just go ahead and transfer already.

7 Iowa
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Marcus Coker (622 yards rushing, 3 TDs), Mika'Il McCall (Fr.), Rodney Coe (Fr.), Jordan Canzeri (Fr.), Adam Robinson (?)

Barring the miraculous reinstatement of the booted Adam Robinson, Marcus Coker will be Iowa's starting running back in 2011, and for good reason. As a true freshman this past year, he rushed for 622 yards while playing in only seven games. He didn't even play until the fourth week of the season, then sat for three more weeks after that before finally getting real time. He rushed for 70 yards against Ohio State, and 219 in the bowl game against Missouri. (Those numbers are fairly equivalent given the defenses involved.) Other than Coker, however, the Hawkeyes are going to be looking at freshmen to give them some depth, and Rodney Coe might be the most intriguing prospect of the bunch. He's 6'3” 240 pounds and was an Army All-American at linebacker, but he came to Iowa because they told him they'd give him a shot at running back, and really, they don't have much of a choice. The Hawkeyes brought in quite a few running backs in this class, so if they need to, they can play one or two of them. Jordan Canzeri is a speedster, and Mika'Il McCall is a solid all-around back. Both can provide a change of pace to the nearly 500 pounds of smash that Coker and Coe would ideally produce.

8 Illinois
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Jason Ford (480 yards rushing, 7 TDs), Bud Golden (32 yards rushing), Troy Pollard (109 yards rushing), Donovonn Young (Fr.), Josh Ferguson (Fr.), Jay Prosch (FB)
Additionally: Nathan Scheelhaase (868 yards rushing, 5 TDs)

Jason Ford is by far the odds-on favorite to land the starting job. After all, the rising senior has rushed for 1,362 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career. He's a brute, but didn't get his first carry over twelve yards until he took a pitch around the right end for 62 yards against Michigan in November. Troy Pollard is a veteran as well, albeit a much less productive one. He has the quickness and shiftiness that Ford does not, but Pollard has yet to put it all together for an entire season. Bud Golden is a smooth slasher, but there just wasn't any carries for him last year. This year, they will need him to provide production, and not just depth. If Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson figure into this discussion in November, then they've either done something extraordinary, or others have done something to require it.

9 Minnesota
Starter: Duane Bennett (529 yards rushing, 3 TDs)
Key Backup: De'Leon Eskridge (698 yards rushing, 7 TDs), Donnell Kirkwood (107 yards rushing), Lamonte Edwards (r-Fr.)
Additionally: MarQueis Gray (110 yards rushing, 1 TD)

Duane Bennett (seven starts) and De'Leon Eskridge (five starts) split the duties last year, but it was Eskridge who received 70 more carries than Bennett. Though maybe the question should be 'why', considering he only averaged 3.6 yards per carry. There were four players in the Big Ten who finished in the top ten in rushing yards per game last year who had fewer carries than Eskridge's 193—including all three of Wisconsin's running backs, each of whom rushed for at least 996 yards. Bennett is more involved in the passing game, and likely will be again. Donnell Kirkwood was a true freshman last season who impressed well enough to get a dozen carries in the season opener, but he was lost for the year with a leg injury a few weeks later. He has since been granted a medical redshirt. Also, if MarQueis Gray wins the quarterback job, he will factor into the running game in a large way. The hierarchy of this group could flip two or three times before Jerry Kill figures out what he wants in 2011.

10 Northwestern
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Mike Trumpy (530 yards rushing, 4 TDs), Jacob Schmidt (161 yards rushing, 4 TDs), Jordan Perkins (Fr.), Nick VanHoose (Fr.), Trevyon Green (Fr.), Adonis Smith (196 yards rushing).
Additionally: Dan Persa (519 yards rushing, 9 TDs)

Four different running backs started for the Wildcats last year, and three of them return. Mike Trumpy started four games last year as a freshman, and emerged as the team's best back. He had 100-yard rushing games against Illinois and Indiana. There aren't any 20-carry per game guys on this team, but there's no reason Trumpy can't continue to get 12-15 and be productive. Jacob Schmidt also started four games last season, but he was decidedly less effective. He may see his carries go to rising sophomore Adonis Smith, who started one game last year as a true freshman. Smith's quickness and ability to drive his legs has folks intrigued, but based on last season, he still has a ways to go before he can be a reliable option. Jordan Perkins is a Stanford decommit who also held offers from Washington and UCLA. He is expected to play this season, but since he's listed around 180 pounds, don't expect too much work for him right away.

11 Purdue
Starter: TBA
Potential Starters: Ralph Bolden (935 yards rushing, 9 TDs in 2009), Akeem Hunt (Fr.), Akeem Shavers (Juco), Brandon Cottom (Fr.), Doug Gentry (Fr.), Jared Crank (76 yards rushing, 1 TD), Reggie Pegram (7 yards rushing)

Looking at this gaggle of geese, you have to wonder if they moved running back Al-Terek McBurse to full-time receiver because the tailback position is in good hands, or if he's just THAT bad. Ralph Bolden blew out his knee in the spring of 2010, so by the time the 2011 season rolls around, his knee should be good to go. He was explosive early on in his breakout 2009 season, but couldn't maintain his manic pace of 183.5 yards rushing per game in his first two games. Still, he is the likely starter in 2011. Akeem Shavers was brought in from junior college to play this season, so we should expect him to. He averaged nine yards per carry, but only played in six games with 50 total carries. He is already enrolled in classes. When Bolden and Shavers are your two surest bets on the season, you better hope some miracles find their way to you.

12 Indiana
Starter: Darius Willis (278 yards rushing, 4 TDs)
Key Backups: Nick Turner (157 yards rushing, 1 TD), Zach Davis-Walker (119 yards rushing), Antonio Banks (90 yards rushing, 1 TD)
Additionally: Whoever wins the QB job will most likely be able to run.

Darius Willis missed the final eight games of the season last year due to injury, and was dinged up through portions of his freshman year back in 2009 as well. He is supposed to be fine this season, but at this point, can you really expect him to play an entire twelve-game schedule? He's a talented back, but with Rich Rodriguez gone from Michigan, he's going to find things much more difficult for him in the Big Ten. The rest of the candidates have shown some flashes here and there, but the flashes are quickly followed by a fizzle, and then darkness. The Hoosiers' best hope for a running game is a situation where their eventual starting quarterback makes everybody just a little bit more threatening than they actually are.

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