There are some very good running backs in the Big Ten this season, but they are all playing second fiddle to Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. This means that every team in the B1G is also playing second fiddle to the Penn State running backs. Second fiddle ain’t so bad, though. I happen to like fiddles.
There are going to be some new names emerging, including a few wearing the Maize and Blue. Sadly, the Big Ten running backs are too much of an unknown this season for this positional rating to be terribly accurate.
It’s a pretty diverse group of running backs, yet only a couple of teams have more than one experienced ball carrier. Experience can be overrated when you have talent, but we just haven’t seen much of that talent show itself yet over the course of an entire season.
These are the kinds of things that I have to weigh when figuring these ratings. Science doesn’t just come naturally. It’s hard work.
Big Ten East
1. Penn State
All you really need to say here is Saquon Barkley. He finished second in the B1G in rushing last season with 1,496 yards, but his abilities are greater than his numbers. That being said, it is concerning that last year he had games of 63, 58, and 14 yards rushing against Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan State, respectively. Barkley puts Penn State at the top of this list, but a pair of sophomores in Miles Sanders and Andre Robinson gives them the depth that keeps them at the top. Barkley does need to be more consistent, however.
2. Ohio State
This might be the first controversial ranking, because I have Michigan State and L.J. Smith rated below Ohio State. Here’s the thing, though, Scott carried the ball two more times than Mike Weber for 102 fewer yards. Weber was more productive than Scott. Both could stand to be more consistent, and both should be this year. Ohio State separates themselves here with depth. Sophomore Demario McCall and freshman J.K. Dobbins could be two of the most dynamic ball carriers in the B1G in 2018. Antonio Williams brings up the rear, but would be starting many other places.
3. Michigan State
L.J. Scott rushed for 994 yards in 12 games last season, and had a monster outing against Ohio State, rushing for 160 yards on 19 carries and catching two passes for 76 yards. He gave the Buckeyes more trouble than Saquon Barkley did. Gerald Holmes and Madre London provide some experienced depth, but neither of them has ever averaged five yards per carry. Scott is going to have to carry the Spartans this season, and he is good enough to do it. Can a freshman help out here? Wouldn’t be the first time.
The Terps will have a very interesting backfield to watch. Ty Johnson (1,004 yards) and Lorenzo Harrison (633 yards) combined for 1,637 yards on just 198 carries. That’s an average of over 8 yards per carry. And that was without any type of passing game. Both running backs are home run guys, but they need to show an improvement in getting tough yards against tough teams. Freshman Anthony McFarland could be interesting as well, but he’s just a little dude (5-8 185). He brings more big-play ability, which surprisingly isn’t something the Terps are lacking.
I went back and forth on Michigan and Maryland’s respective positions here. Initially, I had the Terps ahead, then was going to move UM up a spot, but in the end I decided against it because none of these guys were good enough to unseat De’Veon Smith. Michigan has a deeper group of running backs, but there is no consistency here. To be honest, they could end up third on this list by the end of the season, but I need to see more. Can Chris Evans be The Guy? Is Karan Higdon going to produce in real games? I’ll never understand Ty Isaac. Could freshman Kareem Walker be better than all of them? There are too many questions at this point.
There isn’t much to write about here, and even less to read about. Rutgers’ returning running backs combined for 835 yards rushing last season. They were led by Robert Martin (625 yards), who has over 1,800 yards rushing in his three seasons. Senior Josh Hicks has over 1,200 yards rushing in his career, though only 157 of those yards came last season. Sophomore Trey Sneed played in every game last year as a freshman. There is some experience here — two running backs combining for 3,000 yards rushing — but they’ve been so up and down over the years, there’s no telling what we’ll get this year.
This is a strange position for Indiana to be in considering the guys they’ve churned out this decade. Kevin Wilson has moved on, as has his running backs coach. In steps former Michigan tailback Mike Hart to coach the position. He’ll be doing it with a group that combined to rush for 672 yards last year as Hoosiers. Sophomore Tyler Natee (6-0 270) is interesting, but not the guy to build an offense around. That would either be junior Mike Majette (180 yards rushing last year) or senior Camion Patrick, who came to Indiana out of junior college and was said to be one of their top playmakers heading into last year. Injuries kept that from happening.
Big Ten West
I am a huge fan of senior running back Akrum Wadley. Last season, Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards and caught 36 passes, but he’ll be even busier this year because of what he can do with the football. He is shifty and fast, and an impossible matchup for linebackers in the passing game. Iowa has also added Nevada grad transfer James Butler, who rushed for 3,000 yards with the Wolfpack. Toks Akinbade and Toren Young are also here to help. Freshman Kyshaun Bryan was Torrance Gibson’s running back at American Heritage before transferring to St. Thomas Aquinas for his senior season. He impressed me a bit as a sophomore.
Justin Jackson is the star here. He is looking for his fourth-consecutive 1,000-yard season. Despite all the talk about Saquon Barkley, it was Jackson who led the league in rushing, totaling 1,524 yards and averaging a league-high 117.2 yards per game. He rushed for a total of 118 yards in back-to-back games against Ohio State and Wisconsin, however, so he does tend to load up against the patsies. He finished strong, rushing for 397 yards in the final two games of the season (Illinois, Pittsburgh). Sophomore John Moten looked good at times last year, and redshirt freshman Jeremy Larkin was an Ohio high school star.
Juniors Rodney Smith (1,158) and Shannon Brooks (650) combined for 1,708 yards last year, making them one of the nation’s top duos. Unfortunately, they averaged just 4.8 and 4.7 yards per carry, respectively. That’s not good. In fact, having them this high is more a statement about the rest of the conference. The only ranked teams either player rushed for 100 yards against last season was Penn State. They both topped the century mark in that one. The other ranked teams for Smith went 44, 53, and 45 yards. For Brooks it was 55, 17, and 37 yards. If they’re really as good as people believe, they’ll need to show it against the good teams as well.
If I had a little bit of faith in Lovie Smith, I could envision the Illinois running backs staking a claim for the No. 2 spot in the Big Ten West. Since I don’t, however, I’ll put them here at No. 4. The top two running backs return from last season. Kendrick Foster (720) and Reggie Corbin (523) combined for 1,243 yards last year, and with some consistent quarterback play, they could pass those numbers quite easily. There are some young running backs who will provide some depth. Maybe one of them even sneaks up to take some carries from Foster and Corbin.
It looks like Wisconsin will rely on a trio of running backs this season. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw rushed for 457 yards last year as a redshirt freshman. Taiwan Deal added 164 yards as a sophomore. They are joined by Pitt transfer Chris James, who rushed for a combined 690 yards in 2014 and 2015. None of them should be considered a sure thing, but together they could form a talented and diverse triple-threat attack. After all, this is Wisconsin, so it’s not like the running backs are suddenly going to go silent. They just haven’t done enough to warrant being any higher on this list at this point.
I am not comfortable having Wisconsin and Nebraska this low, but my hands are pretty much tied. The Huskers return around 677 yards rushing from the tailback position, led by junior Devine Ozigbo (412 yards) and sophomore Tre Bryant (172). Junior Mikale Wilbon will also be in the mix. All three have been projected to be the starter by different publications, which is either a good thing or a terrible thing. Committees are rarely as good as one talented workhorse, and I’m not even sure how good this committee actually is.
The Boilermakers return a ton of running backs from last season, including talented junior Markell Jones. Jones rushed for 875 yards as a freshman, but that number dropped to 616 yards last year, with nearly the same amount of carries. Everybody on offense should look a bit better this year under new head coach Jeff Brohm. That doesn’t mean there’s any greatness here. It just means that last year’s bad could become this year’s not-as-bad. Getting D.J. Knox back from an injury last season will help as well. This is a committee with a lot of options, but I just don’t know how good any of them actually are.