COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Big Ten is pretty deep this season at running back, as it returns six tailbacks who have rushed for 1,000 yards, and seven more who have topped 750 yards in a season.
Rating the Big Ten Running Backs
By Tony Gerdeman
If you include Rutgers and Maryland into the mix, 13 of the Big Ten's top 15 rushers from last season return this season, with Ohio State's Braxton Miller being the lone non-tailback on the list.
As you might expect, with that kind of depth, it's not exactly easy to find an order in which to rank them. The top of the list, however, is pretty straightforward. The middle of the list is where things can be interchangeable. The bottom of the list is probably what you'd expect it to be.
As with all of these position reviews, I try to focus on the position at hand, and, for example, not how a shoddy offensive line will affect a team's running backs negatively. Those ratings will come in due time, but they will still have to wait.
Melvin Gordon might just be the most dynamic player in the entire conference. Gordon led the nation with four rushes of 60 yards and three of 70 yards a season ago. His 1,609 yards rushing were second in the Big Ten, but his 7.8 yard-per-carry average were the best in the conference. Third-string tailback Corey Clement rushed for 547 yards as a true freshman last season, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. He may just be the best backup in the Big Ten.
Ameer Abdullah is back after leading the Big Ten with 1,690 yards rushing last season. He had just two games last season where he was held under 100 yards rushing, and carried the ball at least 22 times in Nebraska's final six games. He is the very definition of a workhorse. The depth here is good, with the bruising Imani Cross and quick Terrell Newby providing respite in the rare instances when Abdullah needs it.
3. Michigan State
I'm not the biggest fan of Jeremy Langford, but his 1,422 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns last season can't be ignored. The MSU offense last season had a spectacular formula which featured Langford wearing opponents down for three quarters, and then putting them down in the fourth. Will that formula hold true for a second season? The depth here is okay, which is good because Langford shouldn't be asked to carry the ball 292 times again like he did last year. I'd still like to see better than a 4.9 ypc average from him, however.
So this might be a little bit of a surprise, but I am expecting a very good year on the ground from the Minnesota offense this season. They return David Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards last season, as well as Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed for 926 yards in 2012. Add in 250-pound Rodrick Williams and Braylon Edwards' super-speedy little brother Berkley, and this group may be something special. There is enough depth here that they probably won't even miss Under Armour All-American Jeff Jones, who may not qualify.
5. Ohio State
Due to my belief that nobody in the Big Ten has as deep a group of running backs as the Buckeyes, I absolutely believe that they could end up in the top three before the season is over. However, for now they are unproven, so they will stay behind those who are "proven". Ezekiel Elliott is very likely going to be Urban Meyer's second 1,000-yard tailback, and as I've said repeatedly, he might just be the perfect running back for Meyer's system. He runs in the 4.4s and will be tipping the scales at around 230 pounds for OSU this year. Freshman Curtis Samuel will get snaps, and Bri'onte Dunn is hungry after redshirting as a sophomore last year.
Thankfully for the Wildcats, Venric Mark returns for a sixth season following a successful waiver. He missed almost all of last season after rushing for 1,366 yards in 2012. He should be back to that same form, which would make him one of the most dangerous and versatile players in the nation. There is plenty of experience behind him, and Treyvon Green rushed for 736 yards last season in Mark's place. There is talent here, and it will be interesting to see how they fare without a running quarterback to pose an additional threat on the ground.
So this will be where Penn State and Iowa fans get a little upset. My explanation for having Indiana ahead of them both is that I just like Tevin Coleman way more than anybody else on those other two rosters. He rushed for 958 yards last season while missing the Hoosiers' final three games. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry and had a 40-yard carry in six of his nine games last year. This being Indiana, the depth isn't where the rest of the conference is, but Coleman should have a huge year as defenses have to focus on stopping the Hoosier passing game.
8. Penn State
The Nittany Lions have two very productive running backs in Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, as the two have combined for over 3,000 yards rushing the last two seasons. However, they're really only productive four or five yards at a time. Zwinak did finish strongly last season, averaging 140.8 yards rushing per game in the Nittany Lions' final four games. Belton is supposed to be the more explosive of the two, but he only had two games where he had a 20-yard carry last year. Third stringer Akeel Lynch is the most intriguing, but he's stuck on the depth chart.
You won't get much in the way of spectacular from the Iowa running game, but you will get a ton of carries for an average amount of yards. Mark Weisman carried the ball 227 times last season for just 975 yards (4.3 ypc). In other words, he carried the ball 21 more times than Melvin Gordon and rushed for 634 fewer yards. There is a good amount of depth here, but if this offense is going to rely on Weisman again, don't expect much of anything to come easily for the offense.
The Scarlet Knights have what appear to be two very good running backs, but both have yet to show that they can stay healthy. Paul James was the second-leading rusher in the nation after four games last season, averaging 143.3 yards per game before an injury knocked him out for the next four games. He finished with 881 yards rushing, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Justin Goodwin stepped in for James as a true freshman last season, rushing for 521 yards. He battled through hamstring issues last year. Together, they could be one of the best duos in the conference, but there are too many "ifs" to put them any higher on this list.
Despite the loss of their two best offensive linemen, I fully expect the Michigan running game to be improved this season. However, I have seen virtually nothing from the running backs on this roster to put them any better than 11th on this list. Yes, they were hampered by a terrible offensive line and terrible play caller, but Derrick Green rarely made anybody miss last year. If Michigan's running backs need gaping holes to get yards, then that's their fault, and not the offensive line's. I like De'Veon Smith's determination, which is something that I have not yet seen from Green on more than four or five carries so far in his career.
The Terrapins' situation at running back is like quite a few others in the Big Ten -- they have a good amount of production returning, but that production just isn't as explosive as they need it to be. Maryland returns their top eight rushers, and the only player who averaged more than 5.3 yards per carry was receiver Stefon Diggs. There is some talent, but I don't know if there is one running back who will be productive enough to command carries over the others.
I almost feel bad for Josh Ferguson, who is a very talented running back for Illinois. He rushed for 779 yards on 5.5 yards per carry last season, while catching 50 passes for 535 yards, and he still feels under-utilized to me. Ferguson should be a 1,200-yard back with his abilities. Instead, he had one 20-carry game last year, which happened to produce a season-best 115 yards rushing. It's hard for a running back to get into a groove when he only has five games with more than 10 carries in a season. Backup Donovonn Young has a ton of experience, but has seemingly regressed as he has gotten older.
The two leading rushers from a season ago (Akeem Hunt, Brandon Cottom) return for the Boilermakers, but neither even averaged four yards per carry last year. Raheem Mostert is the one to watch here, however. He is the fastest man in the Big Ten, as his 100M and 200M Indoor and Outdoor Big Ten titles have proven. After carrying the ball just 11 times last season, Darrell Hazell wants to see him touch it 20 times per game this season. That's a lot to ask of a senior who used to be a receiver and has done very little on the ground to this point. Perhaps Hazell is looking for a Dri Archer-type of impact here.
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