Breaking Down Every Big Ten Backfield

David Fidler Correspondent IMarch 5, 2012

Breaking Down Every Big Ten Backfield

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    The conference of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust is, was and will always be known for its rushing game, and the upcoming season will be no exception.

    In 2012, the Big Ten will boast four returning running backs that ran for over 1,000 yards last season. One of those running backs—Wisconsin senior Montee Ball—was a Heisman finalist.

    These days, there are more rushing quarterbacks than in the days of Woody and Bo, but in the Big Ten, there will always be room for the running back to take center stage.

    The number of asterisks next to a player's name indicates how many years he has started. A "starter," for my purposes, had at least four starts to his credit in any one season.

    There is a pound sign (#) next to a player's name if he hasn't started consecutive years or if he didn't start last year.

    Players in italics are returning all-conference honorees. A dollar sign ($) indicates a returning All-American.

    Fullbacks are listed only if the team in question utilizes a scheme that features a fullback with any regularity.

    Finally, a lot can change in the next few months. This article is based on what the rosters of Big Ten teams look like right now, and only what we know right now.

Northwestern Wildcats

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Mike Trumpy (Jr)*

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Treyvon Green (So), Tyris Jones (Sr), Jordan Perkins (RFr), Malin Jones (TrFr)

    The Lowdown

    Northwestern has been in the bottom three of conference rushing offense (YPC) every season since 2007. It has not had a running back put up more than 600 yards in a season since Tyrell Sutton in 2008.

    This has been despite an experienced offensive line in both 2010 and 2011 and a dangerous passing game every year.

    Don't expect any of that to change this season.

    Probable starter Mike Trumpy tore his ACL midway through the 2011 season. He might be cleared to play for 2012, but he won't be 100 percent.

    Treyvon Green offers a ray of hope, but with 3.73 YPC on 97 carries last year, he isn't much hope.

    Expect the quarterback to be the Wildcats' top rusher for the second season in a row.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Donnell Kirkwood (Jr)

    Others in the Mix

    David Cobb (So), Devon Wright (So), James Gillum (JUCO transfer), Rodrick Williams (TrFr)

    The Lowdown

    Last season, the Gophers' top two running backs averaged 3.79 YPC. Donnell Kirkwood was the lesser of those two running backs, averaging 3.63 YPC on 63 carries.

    This season, with the graduation of Duane Bennett, Kirkwood will likely take over the top running back spot.

    As with last year, his success or failure depends on Gopher quarterback and top rushing threat, Marqueis Gray.

    Kirkwood and his backups can be successful if Gray can keep opposing defenses honest with both his rushing and passing.

    If not, expect the Gopher rushing attack to stall.

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: OPEN

    FB: Brad Rogers (Jr)*

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Jordan Canzeri (So), De'Andre Johnson (So), Jason White (Sr), Greg Garmon (TrFr), Barkley Hill (TrFr)

    FB: Jonathan Gimm (Sr), Matt Meyers (So)

    The Lowdown

    For fourth time in five seasons, Iowa will break in a new starting halfback.

    Despite Kirk Ferentz's preference for one featured back, the Hawks will probably go with a running back by committee.

    True sophomore Jordan Canzeri is the most experienced of the bunch, having started Iowa's bowl game and picking up 31 rushing attempts in 2011. He is a burner, but is too small—172 pounds—to carry the rock for four quarters.

    That will open up opportunities for redshirt sophomore De'Andre Johnson—18 career carries—as well as at least one of the true freshmen.

    Expect Greg Garmon—the No. 19 running back in the country according to Rivals and No. 15 according to Scout—to get extensive playing time this season.

    Meanwhile, Brad Rogers is the best returning fullback in the conference, and will help pave rushing lanes for the tailbacks.

Illinois Illini

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Donovonn Young (So)

    FB: Zach Becker (Sr)

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Josh Ferguson (So), Dami Ayoola (TrFr), Devin Church (TrFr)

    FB: Chris Willett (Sr)

    The Lowdown

    Illinois is a bit understaffed in the running back department, given what new head coach Tim Beckman probably hopes to accomplish with his offense.  

    Last season at Toledo, Beckman had the 24th most rushing attempts in the country. He had two running backs with 125 carries or more and three with 90 or more.

    This season, his top two running backs will probably be true sophomores.

    In 2011, Donovonn Young was impressive in limited appearances, carrying the ball 87 times for 451 yards and 5.18 YPC. However, the majority of his carries, yards and success came in the first half of the season; not during Illinois' six-game slide at the end of the year.

    Josh Ferguson got 14 carries in garbage-time duty in the first three games, after which he was injured and missed most of the season.

    Young and Ferguson may turn out to be quality players, but they are the beginning and end of experienced scholarship backs that are currently in Champaign.

    Finally, Beckman isn't known for utilizing a fullback, but he has some experience in Zach Becker, who moves into the starting spot after the transfer of Jay Prosch.

Indiana Hoosiers

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Stephen Houston (Jr)*

    FB: OPEN

    Others in the Mix

    RB: D'Angelo Roberts (So), Matt Perez (So), Isaiah Roundtree (So), Tevin Coleman (TrFr)

    FB: Matt Zakrzewski (So), Dimitrius Carr-Watson (Jr), Mike Carter (Jr), Leniel Himes (So)

    The Lowdown

    One of the more pleasant surprises of the Hoosiers' unpleasant 1-11 season was the emergence of JUCO transfer Stephen Houston.

    The sophomore finished the year with 802 yards, 5.31 YPC and eight touchdowns. Only one team—Ohio State—held him to fewer than three yards per carry. Houston also had 17 receptions for 164 yards.

    It is difficult to fully assess Houston's productivity, given that many of his yards came against opponents' second-team defenses.

    That said, he will be a solid starter for IU, and the three sophomores behind him will make for able backups.

Purdue Boilermakers

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Ralph Bolden (Sr)**/Akeem Shavers (Sr)

    FB: OPEN

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Akeem Hunt (So), Doug Gentry (RFr), Brandon Cottom (So)

    FB: Kurt Freytag (Jr), Derek Jackson (Jr), Devin Hill (RFr)

    The Lowdown

    Ralph Bolden was all-conference in 2009, before losing 2010 to a torn ACL. He came back last year, though statistically he wasn't quite as effective.

    Bolden finished 2011 with 674 yards, 4.55 YPC and six touchdowns. He also had 13 receptions for 129 yards.

    Most of the reason he didn't generate as many yards as 2009 was because he shared the backfield with JUCO transfer Akeem Shavers. Shavers had 519 yards, 4.68 YPC and six touchdowns.

    Also, true freshman Akeem Hunt was impressive in garbage time, averaging 8.70 YPC on 33 carries.

    The three of them will make a formidable group. The question is, are any of them able to take over a game?

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: OPEN

    FB: Zach Boren (Sr)**

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Carlos Hyde (Jr), Jordan Hall (Sr), Rod Smith (So), Bri'onte Dunn (TrFr), Warren Ball (TrFr)

    FB: Adam Homan (Sr), Darryl Wood (Jr)

    The Lowdown

    Running back is the primary position where all those stars and numbers that go with recruiting mean the most.

    In effect, OSU should be in good hands, despite minimal returning experience. After all, it, almost without exception, brings in the top recruiting class in the conference and one of the top 10 in the country.

    In all probability, head coach Urban Meyer will alternate between Hyde and Hall.

    Hyde is a bruiser that weighs in at almost 240 pounds. Last season, he picked up 566 yards and six touchdowns on 106 carries.

    Hall is a speedster. In 2011, he had 408 yards and two touchdowns on 100 carries.

    Finally, Smith is another solid option, and Dunn and Ball were Rivals' No. 11 and No. 16 running backs in the country.

    Also, though Meyer's offense is not known for its fullbacks, he will find a place for journeyman Zach Boren.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Silas Redd (Jr)*

    FB: OPEN

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Curtis Dukes (Jr), Derek Day (Sr), Akeel Lynch (TrFr)

    FB: Mike Zordich (Sr), Zach Zwinak (So), Andre Dupree (Jr), P.J. Byers (Jr)

    The Lowdown

    According to most accounts, new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will run the New England Patriots' offense next season. I have no idea how he will do that without an accurate quarterback, but what does it mean for Silas Redd and the Penn State rushing game?

    Nothing good if this season is any indication, as New England ranked 20th in the country in rushing offense. On the other hand, this was an off-year for the Patriots. Usually, New England's rushing offense is somewhere in the upper-middle of the pack.

    Either way, O'Brien has a quality featured back to carry the load. Despite all of PSU's troubles last season, Redd managed 1,241 yards for 5.09 YPC and seven touchdowns.

    Redd might be the second-best individual back in the conference. The problem is, the fall off from Redd to backups Dukes and Day is substantial.

    Mike Zordich should step comfortably into the starting fullback spot.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Fitzgerald Toussaint (Jr)*

    FB: OPEN

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Vincent Smith (Sr)*#, Stephen Hopkins (Jr), Thomas Rawls (So), Justice Hayes (RFr), Michael Cox (Sr), Dennis Norfleet (TrFr), Drake Johnson (TrFr), Sione Houma (TrFr)

    FB: Stephen Hopkins (Jr)*, Joe Kerridge (RFr)

    The Lowdown

    Fitzgerald Toussaint finally broke through after Michigan failed to produce a 1,000-yard running back—or even a 700-yard running back—for three straight seasons.  

    In 2011, Toussaint scored nine touchdowns, ran for 1,041 yards and had 5.57 YPC.

    The Wolverines have a host of different types of backs after Toussaint. Smith is a scat back more fit for former coach Rich Rodriguez's system. Hopkins is a bull rusher that doubles as a fullback.

    Either way, head coach Brady Hoke has plenty of options.

    Now, he needs to decide whether Hopkins is a full-time fullback or whether he will continue to serve as both the fullback and a backup halfback.

Michigan State Spartans

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Le'Veon Bell (Jr)**

    FB: Niko Palazeti (So)

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Larry Caper (Sr)*#, Nick Hill (So), Nick Tompkins (TrFr)

    FB: Trevon Pendleton (RFr)

    The Lowdown

    Le'Veon Bell is ready to be an every-down back after two seasons of sharing carries with the now-departed Edwin Baker.

    At 6'2", 230 pounds, Bell is presumably up to the task.

    In two seasons, Bell has run for 1,553 yards, which was good for 5.37 YPC, and 21 touchdowns. He is also one of the better receiving backs in the country. Last year, he had 35 receptions for 267 yards.

    If he needs a breather, veteran Larry Caper or up-and-coming speedster Nick Hill will be ready to take on carries.

    Niko Palazeti will likely take over for two-year starting fullback Todd Anderson.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Rex Burkhead (Sr)**

    FB: OPEN

    Others in the Mix

    RB: Ameer Abdullah (So), Aaron Green (So), Imani Cross (TrFr)

    FB: Mike Marrow (Jr), C.J. Zimmerer (Jr)

    The Lowdown

    Whatever Nebraska fans feel they lack at quarterback, they are more than happy with their situation at running back.

    That begins with senior Rex Burkhead, who won't have much of a future in the NFL, but is a top-notch college running back.

    Last year—his first in the featured role—Burkhead gained 1,357 yards for 4.80 YPC and 15 touchdowns. He also had 21 receptions for 177 yards.

    Meanwhile, apparently head coach Bo Pelini doesn't believe in redshirts on running backs, as he played all three of his true freshmen, and all three played well in limited roles. Next season, expect at least one of them to take on an expanded role.

    Pelini will have to find somebody to replace three-year starting fullback Tyler Legate.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Probable Starter(s)

    RB: Montee Ball (Sr)***

    FB: OPEN

    Others in the Mix

    RB: James White (Jr), Jeffery Lewis (So), Melvin Gordon (So), Vonte Jackson (TrFr)

    FB: Derek Straus (RFr), Jason Hengel (So)

    The Lowdown

    In 2011, Ball rushed for 1,923 yards, 6.26 YPC and 33 touchdowns. He also had 24 receptions for 306 yards.

    Ball is unquestionably the best returning back in the conference, but he will have a tough time duplicating last season's production.

    He will be helped by James White, who has yet to officially "start" a game for the Badgers, but has received more carries in his career than most other "starters." In 2010, White led Wisconsin in rushing and all-purpose yardage. Last season, he was slightly less productive, but still managed 713 yards on 141 carries.

    Sophomores Lewis and Gordon could probably start for a number of the teams in the Big Ten.

    Wisconsin will have to replace departed fullback Bradie Ewing. Needless to say, fullback plays a substantial role in UW's power-based offense.