Ranking the Big Ten: Running Backs
Over the past decade, the Big Ten has seen some of its best backs ever in Mike Hart, Ron Dayne, and the could've been Maurice Clarett.
The Big Ten lost four more outstanding backs last year when Javon Ringer and Shonn Greene graduated, and P.J. Hill and Chris Wells declared early for the draft.
Some teams shouldn't miss a beat, while others are likely to struggle while breaking in some new running backs.
11. Indiana—Darius Willis
With the departure of Marcus Thigpen, Indiana will now have to look to Darius Willis to take over duties. Willis was a three-star running back out of Indiana who redshirted last year.
Head coach Bill Lynch believes Willis is going to be something special, but with only four returning starters on the offensive side of the ball, don't expect this to be the year he breaks out.
10. Northwestern—Stephen Simmons
The Wildcats will be replacing four-year starter Tyrell Sutton (pictured above), and it won't be easy to find someone who will produce as much as he did.
Northwestern will likely use many different backs to find who is the best replacement, and it appears right now that Stephen Simmons looks like the best fit. Simmons has great burst but lacks size, standing only 5'8".
Another back who could see plenty of carries is converted receiver Jeravin Matthews, who could be the fastest player on the team.
9. Purdue—Jaycen Taylor
Purdue lacks depth at running back, so senior Jaycen Taylor, who missed all of the 2008 season after tearing his ACL, will likely end up earning the starting role due to his experience.
Taylor ran for 560 yards back in 2007 while splitting time with Kory Sheets, who took over full-time duties last year and ran for a little over 1,100 yards.
Purdue does have some incoming freshmen coming in who will also contribute due to the lack of depth. Al-Terek McBurse ran for 2,200 yards as a senior in high school and could become one of those early helpers.
8. Minnesota—Duane Bennett
Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last year, but most of that can be credited to losing their starter Duane Bennett to a torn knee ligament in the second game of the season.
Bennett is back now and at full health. Watch for him to split the majority of the carries early on with DeLeon Eskridge, who ran for 678 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008.
If Minnesota can find a running game to complement their passing game, they could be a force this year in the Big Ten.
7. Michigan State—Ashton Leggett
There is perhaps no bigger hole a team has to fill in the Big Ten then what Michigan State is having to fill at running back. Javon Ringer ran for 1,637 yards last season, which was 43 percent of the Spartans offense and 99 percent of their running game.
Ashton Leggett will probably get the starts early on in the season, but MSU will likely use multiple backs to see who the best fit is. Expect freshmen Larry Caper and Edwin Baker to get a majority of the carries, as one of the two is expected to be the future of the Michigan State running game.
Leggett is a bigger power back with little speed, while Caper and Baker both are better combinations of good speed and a decent amount of power.
6. Iowa—Jewel Hampton
Many are questioning how the Hawkeyes will replace consensus All-American running back Shonn Greene. Luckily for Iowa fans, they have a very able back in Jewel Hampton.
Hampton last year ran for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as Greene's backup, averaging over five yards per carry. Hampton also has the advantage of running behind the best offensive line in the Big Ten, led by offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Although Hampton won't match Greene's 1,850 yards, he should be able to at least break 1,000.
Hampton won't be taking all the carries. Redshirt freshman Jeff Brinson will also get a decent number of carries, as he was set to play last year before Hampton asserted himself as the solid No. 2 option behind Greene.
5. Ohio State—Dan Herron
The two Wellses are gone, and now Ohio State will need to find a new running back to anchor their offense. The job is up for grabs, and it looks to be a competition between sophomore Dan Herron, junior Brandon Saine, and freshman Jaamal Berry.
As of now, Herron appears to be the leading candidate for the job after rushing for 463 yards in 2008. Herron must step up his game in 2009 for the Buckeyes offense to keep rolling. He has yet to have a 100-yard game but should be able to manage a few in the upcoming season.
Saine has been a bit of a disappointment so far in his career. The former Mr. Football from Ohio was supposed to be th next great running back in the long line at Ohio State, but he managed just 267 yards on 60 carries in 2007 and only 65 yards on 26 carries in 2008.
Berry is the heralded incoming freshman from Florida. Unlike Wells, Berry is more of a speed back and shows great ability to break tackles once he is out in the open.
Unfortunately for Berry, he is going to start out in head coach Jim Tressel's doghouse after recently being picked up on a drug charge in Florida.
If Berry can keep out of trouble, expect him to receive a large number of carries, as many think he is the future of the Ohio State running game.
4. Illinois—Daniel Dufrene
It's not normally good news when your quarterback is your leading rusher, but that's just the case for Illinois. Replacing Rashard Mendenhall's 1,681 yards was no easy task, and by the end of the year all Illinois could manage was a total of 1,120 yards from four different running backs.
Their leading rusher was Daniel Dufrene, and although he was not 100 percent for spring practice, expect him to keep the starting job heading into the fall. In 2009 Dufrene must prove to be more consistent, as he only managed one 100-plus-yard game in 2008.
If he can do this, he and QB Juice Williams could combine for one of the most lethal running games not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire country.
Dufrene won't carry the entire load. Jason Ford is another able-bodied back who could actually take over main duties for Dufrene eventually, as Ford led the Illini in rushing touchdowns in 2008.
3. Michigan—Brandon Minor
There is only one way to describe Michigan's offense in 2008: terrible. Although most cite the poor QB play as the reason behind it, Michigan's line play and running game were nothing better than average.
Things look brighter in 2009. The offensive line returns five offensive starters instead of one, and the RB corps is finally at full health. Brandon Minor headlines the group after sitting behind Mike Hart for two years and playing sparingly throughout the 2008 season due to battling injuries.
In the two games Minor did get over 20 carries, he rushed for an average of 136 yards a game, six fewer than Shonn Greene, and a total of five touchdowns. If Minor can stay healthy and be consistent, expect a huge year from him.
However, not all hopes rest on Minor. After missing 20 games in the first three years of his career, Georgia speedster Carlos Brown is finally healthy and ready to go.
Brown could be the quickest player on the team, and it showed in his 82-yard TD run in the spring game. If Minor is hurt, expect Brown to step up and take control.
Expect a few other backs to get carries, including sophomore Michael Shaw and freshman Vincent Smith. Smith impressed in spring practice and is in the same mold as Rodriguez's backs at West Virginia. Shaw took plenty of carries last year and may be needed to take over in 2010.
2. Wisconsin—John Clay
P.J. Hill is gone, and with him go three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Fortunately for the Badgers, this isn't something that they must worry about.
Last year John Clay played backup for Hill and still managed 884 yards and nine touchdowns with an average of 5.7 yards per carry. If Clay can drop at least 10 to 20 pounds from the 250 he stood at last season, then Clay should be able to rush for 1,000 yards each season with ease.
Clay possesses a combination of speed and power that, with a stable defense, could lead Wisconsin back to contention in the Big Ten.
Zach Brown should provide a stable No. 2 threat after adding a little over 300 yards in 2008.
1. Penn State—Evan Royster
Royster is the top returning rusher with 1,236 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 6.5 yards per carry. The key for Royster this year will be whether he can keep steady.
Penn State lost eight starters on offense, including their top three receivers, meaning Penn State will have to rely on the running game much more. Royster is going to have to step up.
Along with the receivers, the Nittany Lions also lost three starters along the offensive line, all of whom made All-Big Ten teams.
Royster will now have to be the main man and prove not only that his success last year was due to more than the offensive line, but also that he can be the best back in the Big Ten.
Stephfon Green will be his likely backup after rushing for 578 yards last year, but he could be passed if his recovery from broken bones in his ankle and leg doesn't go smoothly.