Anyone who has played fantasy football the last few years has noticed that big time running backs just aren't as plentiful as they used to be. In the last decade, teams have begun to move to a running-back-by-committee approach to better guard against injury, hold voluminous 'star' contracts in check, and set the offense up with more looks to throw at a defense.
Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have been one of the better offenses in the NFL for quite some time and the last big-name running back they lined up in the backfield was a version of Corey Dillon that was well past his prime yet still effective in his reduced role.
Bill Simmons recently commented on this phenomenon in the NFL while the always on point Spencer Hall lamented the fact that three of the NCAA's best will be moving on after this year.
In Big Ten country, however, they still love their bruising backs—and interestingly enough, workhorse quarterbacks.
Last year, four Big Ten running backs averaged more than 19 carries a game in the regular season. Leading the way was Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, the Heisman finalist and single season touchdown record-tying running back that averaged 21 carries and 135 yards per game despite change-of-pace back James White averaging 11 carries per game.
The next running back on the list didn't worry about splitting carries with anyone (and unfortunately for Iowa fans, won't have to worry about splitting carries in the Hawkeye backfield ever again). Marcus Coker played the latest rendition of guy-who-Iowa-plugs-in-at-running-back-to-great-success-only-to-have-him-evaporate-from-the-depth-chart-at-the-hands-of-Angry-Iowa-Running-Back-Hating-God.
Coker was by far the most relied on running back in the conference. He averaged almost 24 carries per game in the regular season, and his 115 yard per game average was just 27 yards shy of Iowa's entire team rushing average for the season (142 ypg).
The second-most relied upon running back in terms of carries per game comes unsurprisingly from a team that has been known to produce some productive rushing attacks in its day. Rex Burkhead of the Nebraska Cornhuskers carried the ball just shy of 22 times per game for 105 yards per game.
The last of the truly worked running backs is Penn State's genesis for offense, Silas Redd. Redd averaged over 19 carries and just shy of 100 yards per game, and was nearly as productive as his quarterback in total offense (Matt McGloin averaged just 129 yards of total offense on average). The next closest running back is Fitzgerald Toussaint with 16 carries per game.
Not only did the Big Ten put together its share of load carrying running backs, but the quarterbacks got into the action as well. Two Big Ten quarterbacks averaged over 17 carries per game, and two more averaged between 13 and 14 carries per game.
To the shock of no one, the most productive quarterback on the ground was once again Denard Robinson, whose regular season once again broke the 200 carry mark (208 to be exact) and yard total ended up at 1,163, fifth best in the conference. These numbers are down from Robinson's breakout sophomore campaign, but despite his offensive coordinator's overtures otherwise, Shoelace was still a big part of the Michigan running game. He may have been even more relied upon had Fitzgerald Toussaint not broken out for a 1,000-yard season of his own, mostly in the back half of the season.
However, Shoelace wasn't the most run quarterback on a game by game basis. That title goes to Minnesota's MarQuies Gray, who edges out Robinson with a carries per game average of 18 to Robinson's 17. Gray wasn't quite as productive with those carries, ending the season with 966 yards (in 11 games; he did not play vs. Michigan).
The other two quarterbacks are Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (14 carries per game for 837 yards) and Braxton Miller (13 carries per game for 695 yards). Both in the top 11 in rushing yards per game in the Big Ten (Miller is 11th).
So what does the future have in store for the Big Ten when it comes to running backs? Will some of these rushing attacks shift to the running back by committee approach that teams like Purdue, Northwestern, and Illinois? That will be hard to predict with the turnover and offensive focus of the teams in question.
None of the running backs or quarterbacks in question are set to graduate, but due to disciplinary problems, Marcus Coker has moved on and left a giant, flashing neon question mark on the depth chart for Iowa. However, the nature of the Hawkeye offense—as old school pro-style as they come—and the lack of options probably means that Iowa will put the bulk of the rushing load on whoever emerges from fall camp.
The situations at Nebraska and Michigan are the opposite. Both teams have proven, experienced options at both quarterback and running back but question marks in the passing game (i.e. can both quarterbacks develop as better-than-average downfield passers? Do both teams have enough talent and depth at receiver?) that should ensure that the offensive focus stays mostly grounded. Considering the health of all four in question, it wouldn't be surprising to see each pair split 500 carries on the season.
Wisconsin's already run-heavy scheme looks to be getting even more so with the departure of quarterback Russell Wilson this offseason. Having Wilson as a one year stopgap after the departure of Scott Tolzien was great for the 2011 Badgers, but unfortunately his presence only allowed for a limited number of snaps by backups at the end of blowouts—not a way to prepare for a future at quarterback. With a first year starter taking snaps, Montee Ball and backup James White will more than likely see an increased workload over last year's already prolific performance.
However, two other teams look to be very heavily reliant on one running back next year. The first is Penn State, which returns Silas Redd, a dysfunctional passing game, and graduates backup Stephfon Green. Penn State will most likely have to rely on a strong defense and grinding rushing attack in 2012 while new coach Bill O'Brien begins to fill out his roster and transition the offense away from gritty walk-on quarterbacks.
Michigan State is also staring down a significantly different offense than the one that dialed up the pass in crunch time a year ago. The young and inconsistent offensive line that contributed to MSU's 11th place in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game will return almost totally intact—although all-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman will be tough to replace—while the Spartan's three-year starter at quarterback, Kirk Cousins, and his top four receivers are all gone. On top of that, junior Edwin Baker decided to take his talents to Sundays after being relegated to second string behind sophomore Le'Veon Bell. One must expect that Bell—a 6'2'' 240lbs bruiser—will be more than capable of shouldering the increased workload.
Ohio State, on the other hand, returns its quarterback but loses a lot of experience on the offensive line (three starters) and its leading rusher from the last two years (Dan Herron). With Urban Meyer moving into town, it would stand to reason that Braxton Miller's running production will go up, and with a full season as a starter his carries should increase as well.
Finally, Minnesota will most likely rely just as heavily, or more so, on quarterback MarQueis Gray to carry the rushing load now that the team's second most productive back Duane Bennett is graduating.
All told, half of the conference looks primed to have a running back average between 18-24 carries per game (Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska) while five teams (Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Minnesota) could very well have a quarterback that averages 15-17 carries per game.
Say what you want about the growing division of labor among running backs, but the classic ideal of a feature running back is still alive and well in the Big Ten. Not only that, the league seems intent on producing a new designation: the feature running quarterback.