College Football 2010: The Return of the Big Ten Running Back

Benjie KleinCorrespondent IJune 7, 2010

Last year, the Big Ten saw something that hadn't happened since the turn of the millennium.

Only two Big Ten running backs surpassed the 1,000 yard mark. Big Ten player of the year John Clay for the Wisconsin Badgers with 1,517 yards and Penn State Nittany Lion Evan Royster at 1,169 yards.

To put it into context, there hadn't been less than five since 2004. Only four runners surpassed the 1,000 yard plateau in that year. And in 2002, a total of nine Big Ten rushers blew by the 1,000 yard mark, including Larry Johnson's monster 2,087 yard season.

A bevy of young running backs emerged on the scene last year, splitting time on their respective rosters. Freshman players like Larry Caper and Edwin Baker for Michigan State showed flashes, but battled for playing time.

At Iowa, Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher attempted to make up for the loss of Shonn GreeneJewel Hampton, another Iowa back originally expected to take over for Greene, was lost last season with a knee injury. 

With all the young competition it was only natural for players to split time. But this year, look for coaches to ride their top pony. 

While the upcoming season won't be 2002, it should equal 2008 with at least six different 1,000 yard rushers. 


John Clay- University of Wisconsin

Clay will set the tone for running backs throughout the conference. He carried the ball 287 times last season in his first full season as the main back and only got stronger as the year went on. He ended the season with six straight 100 yard games.

Clay begins with a great matchup against the UNLV Runnin' Rebels. UNLV gave up over 220 yards rushing per game last year.

With an offensive line that continues to gel and an improving passing games the holes should be plentiful for Clay to run right through. Outside of an injury there is no doubt he will lead the Big Ten in rushing again.

With his combination of speed and power don't be surprised if Clay is flirting with 2,000 yards rushing late in the season.


Evan Royster- Penn State University

The only other 1,000 yard rusher in the Big Ten last year should repeat the feat without a problem. Entering his senior season, Royster will be the focus for the Penn State offense.

With Daryl Clark gone, the Penn State philosophy will look to capitalize on Royster's 5.7 yards per carry average from a year ago. The quarterbacks may battle all year for their spot, but Royster knows his role. The veteran offensive line should find enough chemistry to help Royster satisfy another solid 1,000 yard season.

Teams may stack the box against Royster, but with a stout defense, the offense should have enough time to wear defenses down.


Darius Willis- Indiana University

This name may not be familiar to many outside of the Indiana University campus. Darius Willis emerged on the scene last year with some explosive running ability. He had 64, 70 and 85 yard touchdown runs last season.

Even though their best lineman, Roger Saffold, was drafted by St. Louis this year, the Hoosiers should be able to create enough space.

A player like Willis can capitalize on tight spaces. With a year under his belt and an offensive line he has become comfortable with, there is no reason to think he cannot exceed 1,000 yards.

Veteran QB Ben Chappel should help take a lot of pressure off Willis. Even with shoddy coaching by Bill Lynch, Willis is in position to become the first IU running back to go for 1,000 yards since Levron Williams in 2001. If Lynch wants to keep his job, finding a way for Willis to compliment Chappel will help.


Mikel LeShoure- University of Illinois

Mikel LeShoure is another running back with his coaches weight firmly planted right on his shoulders. He'll continue to split time with Jason Ford, but he will be number one. His 6.8 yards per carry led the Big Ten in 2009.

LeShoure only carried the ball 108 times last year. That amount should almost double. With a solid offensive line and some question marks in other areas on offense, the running back position is the best option. 

Redshirted Freshman Nathan Scheelhaase snatched the starting QB job for Illinois and LeShoure should help ease his pressure. Scheelhaase is a very athletic QB and should be put in many option situations as eases into the role.

Look for LeShoure to have another high yard per carry average and solid 1,000 yard season.


Brandon Saine- Ohio State University

Yet another back who splits time. And with an established quarterback and other running back.  So why will Saine hit 1,000?

After going for 751 yards at 5.1 yards per rush Saine clearly showed he was the superior back over Dan Herron. Look for Saine to be given every opportunity to succeed during his senior campaign. 

Part of the problem last season with Ohio State was offensive inconsistency. That lied within what to do with QB Terrelle Pryor. After a lull midseason, the Buckeyes reestablished their offensive scheme. This year, Pryor will lead a more consistent offense and coach Jim Tressel will not force the team to do what isn't working.

Saine should up his carries from 145 to 200. He'll then ease over 1,000 yards as Ohio State competes for the Big Ten title.


The Sixth Spot and Beyond

Before getting injured last season, Ralph Bolden would have been the third in 2009 to hit 1,000 yards rushing since he finished with 935. This year, he'd also have his name reserved on a spot above except for another injury.

On March 31, Bolden tore his right ACL for the second time in his life. He clearly demonstrated he was able to come back once, but twice may be asking a lot. He may be able to make it back healthy for this year, but don't expect him to be rushed.

If Bolden can come back healthy and remain that way he will hit 1,000 yards. The likely scenario is to restart him slowly and build for a strong finish. It should be a close call if they don't throw the redshirt on him.

After Jewel Hampton's arrest recently nobody is sure how coach Kirk Ferentz will fully react. Coming off an injury and now this, Adam Robinson could be the benefactor. With 834 yards as a freshman last year behind a strong line 1,000 wasn't far out of reach.

Iowa only averaged 3.3 yards per carry as a team with splitting time. This year, the running back that breaks away from the pack will dominate the carries. A great defense will help keep the offense on the field and could allow Robinson, Hampton, or Wegher a 1,000 yard season.

Edwin Baker for Michigan State started off last season unsure of if he would even play as a freshman. Baker was coming off a knee injury out of high school and many thought redshirting him was a formality. 

Instead, he finally entered the fray by the seventh game and got stronger as he became more comfortable. Baker averaged over 5 yards per carry in the last four games, capping it off with a 12 rushes for 97 yards performance against Texas Tech.

Baker will still have to split time with Larry Caper, but look for MSU to look back in the archives. Baker will play the role of Javon Ringer and Caper will pound the rock like Jehuu Caulcrick. 

Although no other backs are on the radar for a 1,000 yard season in the Big Ten, sometimes you just never know who will breakout. 


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