It is does not appear to be a great year for running backs in the Big Ten West, outside of Madison, of course.
The phrase of the day is “running back by committee” around most of the division. In fact, there may only be two tailbacks in the division who could be considered workhorses.
That’s not necessarily bad news, but it does mean that most of the teams in the Big Ten West have more questions than answers right now in the backfield.
Perhaps it will be the team that overachieves the most at running back that challenges Wisconsin for the division crown.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Jonathan Taylor rushed for an NCAA freshman record 1,977 yards last season, which leaves nowhere but down for him this year. But that could actually be a good thing if it means there are other tailbacks more capable of helping him out. Taylor averaged 20 carries per game last year, which is something that people always talk about with running backs, but few running backs actually hit that number. Bradrick Shaw rushed for 365 yards last year and Chris James added 233 yards. They both return this year to hopefully provide increased depth. You may as well keep an eye on true freshman Nakia Watson as well, since these Badger running backs usually come out of nowhere.
2. Purdue Boilermakers
Pretty much every ball carrier from last year returns for the Boilers, and it starts with senior Markell Jones, who rushed for 566 yards (5.0 ypc) last year despite missing the first four games. Jones has rushed for over 2,000 yards in his career, and could be very effective in Purdue’s committee approach. In his absence, carries were spread between senior D.J. Knox (561 yards in 2017), junior Tario Fuller (261 yards), and junior Richie Worship (257 yards). Each running back possesses a distinctive skill set, which will allow head coach Jeff Brohm to mix and match. This being year two in Brohm’s system, there should be some blossoming here.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Like Purdue, everybody is back for Nebraska, which is good — and could be great. With a new offensive system thanks to new head coach Scott Frost, there may be some growing pains, but the production here should still be much better than the 1,200 or so total yards the running backs ran for last year. There are five options here in senior Devine Ozigbo (493 yds), senior Mikale Wilbon (379 yds), junior Tre Bryant (299 yds), sophomore Jaylin Bradley (93 yds), and junior college transfer Greg Bell, who was Rivals No. 1 JUCO tailback in the 2018 class. Bryant’s 299 yards came in the first two games last year, but bad knees make him a question mark.
4. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Senior Rodney Smith has rushed for 2,805 in his career, though his numbers dipped to just 977 yards last year after 1,158 as a sophomore. The Gophers will be counting on Smith much more than they have in the past because he is the only returning running back with any experience. Smith is a good, consistent back who has received very little help from any other area of the offense. Freshman running back Nolan Edmonds had offers Michigan State, Pitt, and California, but chose Minnesota. Junior Jonathan Femi-Cole had nine carries last year, but will need to be more of a presence this year.
5. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern is replacing four-year starter Justin Jackson, and the guy who looks to get first shot is redshirt sophomore Jeremy Larkin. Larkin was the No. 2 last year, rushing for 503 yards on 84 carries (6.0 ypc). He averaged a rush of 20 or more yards every 20 carries, which is about the same number as Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. Junior John Moten has potential, but had a disappointing sophomore season in 2017. Sophomore Jesse Brown carried the ball nine times last year, but there are obviously more opportunities avaialable now. True freshmen Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson are also on campus. This will still likely be Jeremy Larkin’s show, however.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois rushed for just 1,267 yards last year, which would have put them behind Jonathan Taylor, Justin Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Saquon Barkley in the Big Ten’s individual standings last season. Things didn’t start out so terribly, however, as true freshman Mike Epstein rushed for 346 yards in the Illini’s first five games. An injury ended his season and pretty much stunted the Illinois running game more than it was already stunted. Ra’Von Bonner rushed for 202 yards as a true freshman as well last year. They had a couple of other backs produce a bit here and there as well. With a potentially more explosive Illinois offense this year, Epstein and Bonner could be a decent one-two punch.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes have to replace the 1,505 yards lost by the departures of Akrum Wadley and James Butler. Replacing that twosome is likely to be sophomores Toren Young (45-193-2) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (20-184-3). The bulk of Kelly-Martin’s yards came against North Texas (74) and Nebraska (90), while Young’s most effective day came against Ohio State (5-47). There is potential between them, but a drop off has to be expected. Freshman running back Henry Geil had offers from Iowa State, Michigan State, Indiana, and Syracuse, but it’s not often wise to expect much from a true freshman skill player at Iowa.
2018 Big Ten Ratings
Running Backs — East |