Football

Rating the 2019 Big Ten Running Backs — West Division

Wisconsin running back Jonathon Taylor Big Ten Championship Game Ohio State Buckeyes

Five of the seven teams in the Big Ten West return their starting running backs from last season, and that includes Wisconsin workhorse Jonathan Taylor, who led the nation with 2,194 yards rushing last season. He has already rushed for over 4,000 yards in his 2-year career.

Nebraska and Purdue have to find new starters, but it isn’t the offensive side of the ball where either of those teams have too much concern. They do need to find starters and depth, but systems and coaching should get as much as possible out of the running backs on the roster.

There are four running backs returning who have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, and Minnesota has two of them. The Badgers’ Taylor has already been mentioned, and the fourth 1,000-yard rusher is Illinois senior Reggie Corbin, who put up 1,085 yards last season without anybody watching.

Overall, it’s a pretty deep and talented group of running backs despite only one of the West’s running backs being ranked a 4-star prospect.

(The number in parentheses is the total number of recruiting stars at the position.)

1. Wisconsin Badgers (24)

Two of Wisconsin’s eight 3-star backs are actually fullbacks, which should surprise no one. What may be a surprise, however, is that junior Jonathon Taylor was only a 3-star prospect. All he has done in his first two years is rush for 1,977 yards as a freshman and 2,194 yards last year as a sophomore. The 4,171 yards is an FBS record for a player’s first two seasons. Taylor averaged 7.2 yards per carry last year against defenses who had little reason to fear the Badger passing game. He rushed for 200 yards five times last season, which also includes a 321-yard performance in a 47-44 win at Purdue. Junior Garrett Groshek is a nice alternative for Wisconsin. The former walk-on found a role on passing downs, rushing for 425 yards last year and catching 24 passes. Fifth-year senior Bradrick Shaw missed last season, but rushed for a combined 800 yards in 2016 and 2017. There are four scholarship RBs on the roster with freshman eligibility.

2. Minnesota Golden Gophers (21)

Let’s go ahead and assume no team in the Big Ten — or possibly even the country — returns as many career rushing yards as Minnesota. Redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim and seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have combined for 6,001 yards rushing and 50 total touchdowns. Smith and Brooks are still in the process of returning from ACL tears suffered last season. Smith went down in early September and is ahead of Brooks, who suffered his tear in late October. Without them last year, however, Ibrahim did just fine, rushing for 1,160 yards on 202 carries, scoring nine touchdowns. He also missed three games along the way. Ibrahim rushed for 157 yards against Ohio State, 121 yards at Wisconsin, and 224 yards in the bowl game against Georgia Tech. Bryce Williams rushed for 502 yards last year as a true freshman.

3. Illinois Fighting Illini (24)

Amazingly, Illinois has eight former 3-star running backs on the roster. Six of those running backs helped contribute to the No. 2 rushing attack in the Big Ten last year. They are led this year once again by senior Reggie Corbin, who led the team with 1,085 yards rushing last year, averaging 8.5 yards per carry. Corbin finished second in the nation with seven carries of at least 50 yards last year and he led the nation with four rushes of at least 70 yards, and he never even had to play Ohio State to get there. Juniors Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner combined for 806 yards on the ground last year. The effectiveness of the running backs will depend somewhat on the quarterback play, and the Illinois offensive scheme plays a large role in how well the Illini run the ball, but there is plenty of actual talent here as well.

4. Northwestern Wildcats (15)

Sophomore Isaiah Bowser rushed for 866 yards last season as a true freshman, but averaged a pedestrian 4.4 yards per carry. The Wildcats were dead last in the Big Ten in rushing last season, averaging 114.9 yards on the ground per game. After a rough September and October, they turned to Bowser and he helped them average 162 yards per game rushing in November. They only managed 3.8 yards per carry, but they successfully established the run for the first time all season. They went 3-1 in the stretch, with their lone loss being to Notre Dame. Bowser stepped in for Jeremy Larkin, whose career ended during the season due to an injury. Bowser carried the ball twice over the first five games, but ended up rushing for 100 yards in four of NU’s final eight games. Senior John Moten and sophomore Drake Anderson will give Northwestern some changes of pace.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes (21)

Iowa was one of three Big Ten teams without a single rush of 50 yards or more last season (Indiana, Ohio State), so finding big plays is a big emphasis this season. Even with the top three rushers returning, they combined for a total of just six rushes of 20 yards or more last year. The year before, they had four just against Ohio State. Those three returning rushers will be pushed this year, which is a good thing. This is a skilled group, but competition will make them better. Leading rusher Mekhi Sargent rushed for 745 yards on 4.7 yards per carry last year as a junior college transfer. It wasn’t great, but they may have been lost without him. Juniors Toren Young (136-637-4.7) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (97-341-2) are veterans with potential. Redshirt freshman Henry Geil has an opportunity here, as do true freshmen Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd.

6. Nebraska Cornhuskers (19)

The lone 4-star running back in the Big Ten West is Nebraska sophomore Maurice Washington, who rushed for 455 yards and three touchdowns last season, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Washington’s availability this season is in doubt, however, due to legal issues. His plea hearing was pushed back to late July, which is right around the time the Huskers will be hitting camp. If he can play this season, he will likely be the Huskers’ starter. If he can’t, there is very little experience behind him to turn to. The best option is junior college transfer Dedrick Mills, who was finally admitted to Nebraska about four weeks ago. He rushed for 1,358 yards and 19 touchdowns last year at Garden City (Kansas) Community College. He transferred there from Georgia Tech, where he led the Jackets with 771 yards rushing and 12 TDs as a freshman in 2016. A trio of freshmen and sophomore Jaylin Bradley will all be vying for possibly a backup role.

7. Purdue Boilermakers (12)

It’s never a good sign when the leading returning rusher on a team is a receiver. Even though that receiver here is Rondale Moore, his 213 yards rushing are not exactly a monumental total to exceed. Purdue relied on a pair of senior tailbacks last year and both are gone. The two most likely options this year are senior Tario Fuller and junior Zander Horvath, who combined for 76 yards rushing last year. Fuller did rush for 261 yards in the first three games of 2017, but has dealt with injuries throughout his career. Senior Richie Worship has rushed for nearly 400 yards in his career, but missed last year with an injury and expectations for 2019 are not high. A pair of 3-star running backs could be big here. King Doerue is from Texas and chose Purdue over offers from Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Notre Dame, and others. Da’Joun Hewitt was the No. 2 running back in Tennessee and also held an offer from Rutgers. Whoever wins the job will also catch 20-30 passes this year.


Big Ten Ratings

Quarterback — East | West

Running Back — East |

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