The Big Ten is a running backs league. Or at least it used to be. It may still be, but it’s an antiquated way of looking at offenses around the conference.
Blood rivals Penn State and Rutgers are the only two teams in the East that do not return their starting running back. Some schools, like Ohio State and Michigan, return more than one tailback with starting experience.
There are some very talented players to watch at running back in the Big Ten, and more will emerge throughout the season.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State has arguably two of the three best running backs in the Big Ten in sophomore J.K. Dobbins and junior Mike Weber. In fact, if you wanted to, you could probably get away with calling them the two best in the division. Dobbins went for over 1,400 yards last year as a true freshman and has returned faster, bigger, and stronger. Weber, meanwhile, spent much of last year injured, but still managed to rush for 626 yards while splitting carries with quarterback J.T. Barrett. Two very talented true freshmen enter the mix this season in Master Teague and Brian Snead. Teague impressed in the spring. Snead just arrived this week. He is the No. 3 RB in the 2018 class.
2. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan has the second-best one-two punch in the Big Ten in senior Karan Higdon and junior Chris Evans. Higdon emerged as the Wolverines’ best player last season, rushing for 994 yards and 11 touchdowns. Evans was a nice complement against bad teams, adding 685 yards on the ground. Against four ranked teams last year, however, Evans averaged 34 yards rushing per game. Higdon didn’t fare much better, managing just 46.3 yards per game on the ground. Evans and Higdon aren’t “fake good,” but it is time for them to produce against somebody other than Indiana or Minnesota. Depth here is an issue, but the staff likes true freshman Christian Turner.
3. Maryland Terrapins
Maryland has some very good talent at running back, and have had that talent for a while now. Ty Johnson is an explosive back, rushing for 1,879 yards over the last two years. In 2017, Johnson started out with 132 yards on 12 carries against Texas, but as has been his custom, he fades over the course of the season. In 10 games against ranked opponents the last two seasons, his best rushing effort has been 83 yards on 16 carries last year against Wisconsin. Johnson is joined by junior Lorenzo Harrison, who has rushed for over 600 yards in each of his first two seasons. He’s a small guy like Johnson, but runs hard. Redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland was an Ohio State target, but he spent last season recovering from an injury. He had an impressive spring. There is other young talent here as well.
4. Michigan State Spartans
L.J. Scott is already a senior if you can believe it. He has led the Spartans in rushing in each of his first three years, and is the only bet to do it this year. Scott has yet to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, and has only averaged 5 yards per carry once (2016) in his career. Last season was his career worst average-yards-per-carry mark at just 4.5. His three 100-yard games last season came against Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington State. The Spartans need more from him this year. Behind Scott is sophomore Connor Heyward, who had three carries last year, and redshirt freshman Weston Bridges. There is an opportunity for a true freshman to have an impact.
5. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State is replacing Saquon Barkley this year, and they’ll be doing it with a mix of veterans and young players who have a little over 100 career carries between them. Junior Miles Sanders is expected to be the man this year and expectations are very high for what he will do in 2018. Sanders was one of the top running backs in the 2016 recruiting class. He has 56 career carries for 375 yards (6.7 ypc). Behind him is senior Mark Allen, who is experienced, but has just 66 rushing attempts over his first three years. Freshman Ricky Slade was a 5-star prospect. He may be undersized, but he is explosive. Redshirt freshman Journey Brown has also received positive reviews.
6. Indiana Hoosiers
Sophomore Morgan Ellison led the Hoosiers in rushing as a true freshman last year with 704 yards on 143 carries (4.9 ypc). He had two 100-yard rushing games last year (Georgia Southern – 186; Rutgers – 149), but needs to become a more consistent producer against better defenses. Sophomore Cole Gest rushed for 428 yards last year, including 104 yards against Rutgers. Senior Mike Majette has been talked about for years, but has dealt with injuries forever. He carried the ball 22 times for 22 yards last year. Freshman Ronnie Walker signed with Indiana over offers from Michigan State, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, and Northwestern.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
For the second year in a row, Rutgers has brought in a graduate transfer running back to hopefully carry the load. Last year, Gus Edwards came from Miami to help out, and this year it is former Boston College Eagle Jonathan Hilliman. Hilliman has rushed for 2,238 yards in his career, but his best yard-per-carry mark was a 4.1 average as a freshman in 2014. Sophomore Raheem Blackshear rushed for 238 yards last year, though 189 of it came against Morgan State and Lovie State. True freshman Isaih Pacheco will likely also be called upon if the Rutgers running game is still looking for answers. Redshirt sophomore Trey Sneed didn’t play last year.