Venric Mark is the B1G's leading returning rusher in 2013
Continuing our look ahead to the 2013 season, it's time to rank the most powerful backfields and rushing attacks in the Big Ten for next year.
A good running game is typically required to grind through the tough conference season and come out with a chance at a title. Not surprisingly, four of the conference's teams (Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Northwestern) ranked in the Top 20 nationally for rushing, and all four of these teams were near the top of the standings.
Also not surprisingly, each of those four teams will be competing for the top spot in 2013 as well. But there are also some up-and-comers trying to unseat these four in the conference standings and atop the rushing charts.
The following rankings have been based on the 2012 and career statistics of returning players, as reported by ESPN, with the addition of players injured last season and incoming recruits. Having multiple proven options is a valued asset considering that most teams experience some injuries at this position throughout a long season.
Let's take a look at the best backfields in Big Ten Country for 2013.
One of MSU's many early departures was the second best rusher in 2012
The bottom of the list is hard to parse because most of these teams do not bring much back. Each of these programs needs to focus on recruiting more depth going forward, or else the stay at the bottom of the conference standings may be prolonged.
Here's a brief summary for each team looking to improve in the future:
128 yards per game in 2012 (99th nationally)
Leading Returner – junior Donovonn Young (571 yards, 3 TD)
The Illini struggled to get any running game going behind the offensive line last season, and the depth issues up front will continue next year. That means, even with the top three rushers back from a season ago (including QB Nathan Scheelhaase), there is not much to fear for opposing defenses from this aspect of the Illinois offense.
164 yards per game in 2012 (59th nationally)
Leading Returner – junior Akeem Hunt (335 yards, 2 TD)
Purdue loses the top rusher for the team in Akeem Shavers, who contributed 871 yards in 2012. Shavers and Hunt looked to be a fearsome duo coming into last season but only Shavers distinguished himself during conference play. That leaves the Boilermakers with some big question marks and not much to lean on in 2013.
149 yards per game in 2012 (77th nationally)
Leading Returner – junior Nick Hill (48 yards, 1 TD)
Yes, that 48 yards is seriously the top rusher returning thanks to the unexpected departure of Le'Veon Bell to the NFL draft. The Spartans will turn to a bunch of recruits from last season and this season to fill in where a superstar carried the offense last year. This is the most unproven backfield in the conference, and possibly the country.
152 yards per game in 2012 (69th nationally)
Leading Returner – junior Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards, 6 TD)
Kirkwood ranked in the top 10 rushers for 2012, but there is not a lot of proven help behind him. In addition, when QB MarQueis Gray went down with an injury, the running game really struggled with just Kirkwood being the primary threat. Plus Kirkwood built up well over half his numbers against non-conference foes, which indicates a tendency to disappear when it counts most.
131 yards per game (96th nationally)
The Hoosiers certainly kept pounding away with the passing attack in 2012, which is something that Indiana has done for over a decade. Head coach Kevin Wilson did prove that he wants to establish the running game, using Houston to open up the passing game against multiple opponents last year.
What separates Indiana from the bottom of the pack is a depth of rushing talent brought on by solid recruiting classes since Wilson took over. Roberts and Coleman are just the tip of the iceberg, as Indiana may be able to draw on as many as five different backs for carries in 2013.
With a strong leader and a lot of backup, Indiana could take the next step and do much better statistically going forward.
Zwinak was a threat in the passing game as well
144 yards per game (85th nationally)
Penn State entered the 2012 season with huge question marks at running back, as one of the best players who decided to depart in the wake of the scandal was RB Silas Redd. While Redd struggled to find his groove out in California, multiple players excelled in the wide-open Bill O'Brien offense.
The most successful of the running backs proved that they could contribute in the passing game as well as the running game. However, when the season was finished, Zwinak had distanced himself as a clear leader of this team. About the only knock on this running crew was a lack of touchdowns overall.
Although Penn State will be replacing a quarterback and several players on offense, Zwinak and Belton provide two great options to lead the surprising depth at this position for a school under heavy NCAA sanctions. That pushes the Nittany Lions away from the bottom pack and onto this list.
This is a sight that cannot be seen again in 2013
184 yards per game (41st nationally)
Thanks to an injury to Toussaint, the Wolverines relied on Denard Robinson and Vincent Smith against Ohio State and South Carolina. Although both of those players (especially Robinson) will be missed, Michigan will finally have a stable of running backs and a pro-style offense for Brady Hoke in 2013.
That means the running backs will once again dominate the rushing game for the first time since Mike Hart prowled the sidelines for the Wolverines. Although Toussaint failed to take the next step with Robinson still in school in 2012, he will have one more chance to shine with great backup in Rawls.
Michigan also moved up a couple of spots on this list thanks to the recent commitment of the top running back in the country (per Rivals) Derrick Green. Green may make an immediate impact, but Michigan may also choose to redshirt him and let him learn the ropes for a huge impact in 2014. It's a huge coup for the Wolverines and a nice option to have behind Toussaint.
A fullback almost broke 1000 yards...it was that kind of year in Iowa City
123 yards per game (104th nationally)
It may seem like merely suggesting that the worst rushing team in the Big Ten in 2012 would recover in 2013 is an invitation for the "Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God" (AIRBHG per Adam Jacobi) to strike again. But all of the personnel losses and injuries have forced many different young players to step up and contribute.
In other words, there is more depth and experience here than anyone could have imagined, even without a top-line talent leading the way. Don't expect Weisman to lead the way again next season, but he will see some action to spell Canzeri and Bullock while providing a change of pace for opposing defenses.
Iowa will rely on the running game to carry the team next season, especially early on while a new quarterback breaks in his leadership skills. At some point, karma has to turn around and if that happens in 2013, this unit could skyrocket to the top of the list in the conference or close to it. The potential is there for a better finish, but AIRBHG could dropkick these poor guys back towards the bottom.
James White will be the main man in 2013
236 yards per game (13th nationally)
Normally losing the leading rusher in the conference for two years running would be a huge detriment to a team (see Michigan State for a similar example), but it will be no big deal at Wisconsin. The Badgers always seem to have a star ready to take over when a great running back leaves, and that comes from having two or three regular contributors each season.
The next man in line is James White, who has racked up impressive numbers behind Montee Ball the past two years. White excels at using his elusiveness to break off big runs, but Gordon may be the new big play man in Madison. Gordon averaged an impressive 10.0 yards per rush and will earn a lot more playing time in 2013.
If that were not good enough, Vonte Jackson will be back as a redshirt freshman after sitting out 2012 with injury. He was highly recruited out of high school and will likely become the third option that Wisconsin loves to develop as a season progresses. Wisconsin has a three-headed rushing monster once again, helping the Badgers recover from losing a great one.
Abdullah carried the team a lot in 2012
253 yards per game (8th nationally)
What separates the top three teams from the middle of this power ranking is a threat at quarterback, which the Huskers certainly have in Taylor Martinez. While Martinez has his down moments in the passing game, he is a constant threat to break a huge run and ruin a good defensive drive in a heartbeat.
Nebraska may have benefited as Iowa did in losing a top running back to injury when Rex Burkhead was out for much of 2012; younger players carried the load more than they would have otherwise. Abdullah proved he could carry the team and not just be an explosive edge runner during Big Ten play.
Meanwhile, Heard and Cross both showed a lot of potential for the future. The rich get a bit richer in Lincoln as well, with the 13th-ranked running back in this year's class (according to Rivals) Terrell Newby joining the team for 2013. With Abdullah and Martinez on the top and all this talent behind him, expect Nebraska to be a top-10 rushing attack nationally again next season.
Mark will hope to lead the conference in rushing in 2013
226 yards per game (19th nationally)
Although Pat Fitzgerald may have telegraphed exactly what the offense was going to focus on by switching between a passing quarterback Trevor Siemian and Colter, both quarterbacks still managed to excel when put in the game. That allowed Northwestern to be competitive in every single game, and the only three losses all could have gone the other way thanks to this output.
Even when Siemian was in the game, Northwestern was a strong threat to run the ball thanks to Mark. He finished third in rushing this season and is the top returning running back in the conference, which means he should break out as a star in 2013. Trumpy will also continue to contribute as all of the major players on the Wildcat offense enter their senior seasons.
2013 was the season that this team was supposed to take the next step and compete for a Big Ten championship. In reality, this team jumped the gun in 2012 thanks to this backfield. All the pieces are back, so do not be surprised if these players carry Northwestern to Indianapolis next December.
Carlos Hyde will continue to eat up carries in 2013
242 yards per game (10th nationally)
Leading Returners—senior Carlos Hyde (970 yards, 16 TD), senior Jordan Hall (218 yards, 1 TD before being IFS in 2012), junior Rod Smith (215 yards, 1 TD). Also junior QB Braxton Miller (1271 yards, 13 TD)
When Hall received word in January that he would receive another year of eligibility after being injured early in 2012, that pushed Ohio State slightly past Nebraska and Northwestern for the top spot on this list. No other team has the deadly combination of two proven running backs and a dynamic threat running from the quarterback position.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that Urban Meyer could take all this talent and maximize it to a perfect record last year. That being said, Big Ten defensive coordinators have to be worrying about just how good this backfield and the Buckeye offense will be with all of the parts back on offense and another year of Meyer's training. Assuming Hall and Hyde both stay healthy, Ohio State will be tough to stop with the run-heavy spread attack.
The youth backing up these players is also strong and deep. Smith is joined by sophomore Bri'onte Dunn (who saw playing time as a freshman) and newcomer Ezekiel Elliott, who is ranked 15th among running backs in the 2013 recruiting class per Rivals. There is simply an abundance of riches in Columbus at running back, and Miller on top of it.
Thus the Buckeyes come in at the top of the 2013 backfield power rankings. How would you rank them differently? Please discuss in the comments below.
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