Ranking the Big Ten Running Backs — Legends Division

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Last updated: 06/06/2012 3:02 PM
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Ranking the Big Ten Running Backs — Legends Division
By Tony Gerdeman

When it comes to running backs in the Big Ten, the Legends Division is full of question marks even at the top of the list. But those questions could provide some very surprising answers as the season goes on.

For teams like Minnesota and Northwestern, this could be a chance for a player to break out and take command of a workload. For Iowa, this is a chance to see if there are any actual running backs on the roster.

Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State will be fine this year, provided their workhorses stay injury free. I hope that wasn't a jinx.

2. Nebraska

Starter: Rex Burkhead (284-1,357 15 TDs)

Backups: Ameer Abdullah (42-150 3 TDs), Richard Wynne, Braylon Heard, Mike Marrow, Imani Cross*, Zach Taylor

Rex Burkhead is one of the true workhorses in college football, carrying the ball nearly 25 times per game in Big Ten play. However, while he is relentless, he only averaged over five yards per carry in two conference games last year, and only had one carry over 20 yards in his final nine games. With Nebraska's shaky passing game, defenses were able to focus on stopping the run, and they made life incredibly difficult on Burkhead in the process. The plan is to make life easier on him this season, but they'll still need to find more room for him to run. Sophomores Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green were expected to take some of the weight off of Burkhead's shoulders, but Green transferred after the spring, so much of the backup duty will go to Abdullah. Braylon Heard was moved to the secondary, but following Green's transfer, he was moved back to the backfield and could be a two-way player for the Huskers this year. Imani Cross is a powerful true freshman (6-1 220) who would be the biggest back on the roster if not for Alabama transfer Mike Marrow (6-2 250), who was a fullback for the Tide. Cross and Marrow provide a couple of powerful options, and Heard and Abdullah bring speed and quickness. Abdullah will likely get the most carries of the backups, but this will still be Burkhead's show.

4. Michigan

Starter: Fitzgerald Toussaint (187-1,041 9 TDs)

Backups: Vincent Smith (50-298 2 TDs), Thomas Rawls (13-79), Justice Hayes, Stephen Hopkins (11-43), Dennis Norfleet*, Drake Johnson*

With Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan might be underrated at number four on this list. He is one of the rare Big Ten backs who got better as the season went on. Once Al Borges decided that Toussaint was the guy, the first-year starter never looked back. After rushing for just 363 yards over his first seven games, he rushed for 678 yards over his final five conference games, averaging 135.6 yards rushing per game. He will start the season as the team's number one tailback, which means he may pick up right where he left off last year. He doesn't have the top end speed, but he still ripped off long runs routinely thanks to the threat of Denard Robinson. This year Toussaint should have a little more help, specifically in the form of rising sophomore Thomas Rawls. Rawls was a little slow to display the necessary vision last year, but he had a fantastic spring and the coaches are certainly expecting him to be a contributor this season. Vincent Smith will still be seen here and there, mostly in the passing game, but the carries should be split between Robinson, Toussaint and to a much smaller extent, Rawls. Stephen Hopkins is the fullback, but will get a few carries as well.

5. Michigan State

Starter: Le'Veon Bell (182-948 13 TDs)

Backups: Larry Caper (30-116 1 TD), Nick Hill (29-113), Nick Tompkins*

This will be Le'Veon Bell's first chance to be a workhorse for the Spartans, and as Mark Dantonio has shown in the past, he is more than willing to work a tailback into the ground. However, there are certainly question marks about whether or not Bell can be that type of running back. He disappeared during the second half of his freshman year, and never carried the ball more than 20 times in a game last season. He needs to show that he can wear a defense down as a game goes on, and he'll need to do it when he's already worn down himself. Basically, can he get stronger as a game goes on? He was very effective when called upon last year, but this year he will need to be the team's number one option. To make matters more difficult, he'll have to do it behind a new quarterback. Larry Caper is a capable back who led the team in rushing with 468 yards in 2009. Both Bell and Edwin Baker passed him by the last two years, but his role will likely expand in 2012. Nick Hill is a smaller back (5-8 190) who is supremely quick, but hasn't done much to this point. Caper and Hill will get carries this year, but how well the Spartans do will depend upon how easy Bell can make life for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell.

10. Northwestern

Possible Starter: Mike Trumpy (35-182 1 TD), Treyvon Green (97-362 4 TDs)

Backups: Jordan Perkins, Malin Jones*, Stephen Buckley*, Tyris Jones (19-69), Venric Mark (15-104 1 TD)

Mike Trumpy led the team in rushing as a freshman in 2010 with 530 yards, and was supposed to be the guy last year, but he only played in three games due to injury. He's not overly fast or elusive, but he can get about five yards every time he touches the ball. He has the ability to break tackles, and is a fantastic pass blocker. However, he still has to get healthy, and until he is, he can't really be counted on to be the same player he was before. Treyvon Green emerged as a true freshman last season, and it's a good thing that he did because there just weren't that many options. However, he touched the ball 107 times last season and only three times did he have gains of more than eight yards. For a guy who is supposed to be a playmaker, those just aren't playmaking numbers. He should be better this year, but whether or not his average improves will probably depend on what the offense looks like under quarterback Kain Colter. Jordan Perkins is a redshirt freshman from California who chose Northwestern over Stanford, so he definitely has some promise. Venric Mark is a big-play guy, but is more of a returner and gadget guy. Keep an eye on true freshman Malin Jones, who spurned Notre Dame, Illinois and Iowa for the Wildcats.

11. Minnesota

Possible Starter: Donnell Kirkwood (63-229 3 TDs), David Cobb (10-57), James Gillum (JUCO)

Backups: Devon Wright, Cole Banham, JoJuan Harper*, Rodrick Williams*

James Gillum comes to Minnesota from Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, where he ran for 2,339 yards and 25 touchdowns in two seasons. He is a player that Jerry Kill was originally recruiting at Northern Illinois, and they kept in touch with him while he was in Mississippi. Right now, he could be the most likely candidate to start the season opener. He was healthy throughout the spring, which Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb were not. He's got the breakaway speed that the others don't, he breaks tackles, and he's secure with the ball. The coaching staff raved about him all spring long, but he'll obviously have to duplicate his performance come fall camp. Donnell Kirkwood has battled hamstring issues, and is basically an average running back when healthy. David Cobb has promise, but the coaches don't like how loose he is with the football. JoJuan Harper is a true freshman from Minnesota, but he transferred from the North Dakota State College of Science. He participated in the spring and led the Spring Game in rushing with 44 yards. In an ideal world, Gillum would win the job and team with MarQueis Gray to create a formidable pair.

12. Iowa

Possible Starter: Jordan Canzeri (31-114), Damon Bullock (10-20), Jason White (7-32), De'Andre Johnson (18-79), Greg Garmon*, Barkley Hill*

Backups: See “Possible Starter”

With the sudden loss of 1,384-yard rusher Marcus Coker, what was a position of strength for Iowa now becomes a position of absolute uncertainty. While there are a number of options here, they all shrink in comparison to what the Hawkeyes had in Coker. Jordan Canzeri may get the first look because he stepped up last year in the bowl game against Oklahoma with 28 touches for 86 yards. However, he's only about 180 pounds, so he's not built to take a lot of wear and tear. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield might make him a popular outlet in a passing game that will no doubt fuel this offense. Damon Bullock and De'Andre Johnson are both just sophomores, so it's not impossible for one of them to emerge. Bullock had been splitting time between receiver and tailback, but he's in the backfield full time now. Johnson had a very good spring and has made those around the program hopeful that he can be counted on. Freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill are also possibilities. Garmon chose Iowa over Miami (FL), but had offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State, Penn State and Arkansas, though some of those offers were at safety.

Running Backs
1. Wisconsin
2. Nebraska
3. Penn State
4. Michigan
5. Michigan State
6. Ohio State
7. Illinois
8. Indiana
9. Purdue
10. Northwestern
11. Minnesota
12. Iowa

Quarterbacks Leaders Legends

Running Backs Leaders


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