The Big Ten has always been about pounding the football.
Whether it was the wishbone, three yards and a cloud of dust or the modern spread option, the key has been to move the ball on the ground.
In 2010, the Big Ten had the second highest percentage of rushing plays of any AQ conference with 57.2 (the SEC had the most with 57.50).
In short, no matter the scheme, the key to scoring in the Big Ten is the rushing game, same as it was throughout the 20th century and same as it will probably remain.
The following list will rank the Big Ten position group that will receive the lion's share of the carries—the running backs.
A few notes
The players in italics are returning starters. A "returning starter," for my purposes, is any player that has started four or more games in his career.
Players in italics and bold denote multi-year starters.
Players with an asterisk next to their names were first or second team, media or coaches, all-conference last season.
No. 1: Mike Trumpy (So)
No. 2: Adonis Smith (So)
No. 3: Jacob Schmidt (Sr)
Players in the mix: Treyvon Green (TrFr), Jordan Perkins (TrFr).
Breakdown: Last season, Northwestern ranked ninth in the conference in team yards-per-carry (YPC) with 3.64. Much of the reason they weren't last was because of quarterback Dan Persa.
Persa not only led the team in rushing until his season-ending injury; he also took a lot of heat off of the running backs.
The Cats struggled through two lackluster backs until settling on freshman Mike Trumpy, who ran for a respectable 4.57 YPC in 116 carries. Then he was injured, which opened the door for fellow freshman Adonis Smith, who had 4.78 YPC on 41 carries.
With Persa back and the second most experienced offensive line in the country in front of them, the Northwestern backs have everything they need to succeed. But right now, they still need to prove themselves.
No. 1: Darius Willis (Jr)
No. 2: Open
No. 3: Open
FB: Dimitrius Carr-Watson (So) OR Leneil Himes (RFr)
Players in the Mix: Nick Turner (So), Zach Davis-Walker (Sr), Antonio Banks (So), Matt Perez (RFr), D'Angelo Roberts (TrFr), Stephen Houston (Juco, So).
Breakdown: Last season, the worst rushing team in the Big Ten was Indiana with 3.46 YPC. In fact, they were 99th in the country.
Part of the reason for this was because Darius Willis missed most of the season with a knee injury. On the other hand, the IU running game wasn't terribly impressive with Willis. In 50 carries, Willis averaged 3.52 YPC against Western Kentucky, Akron and Michigan. Those teams ranked 86, 72 and 95 in national rushing defense.
In 2011, Willis will be back which will help the rushing game a good deal. There are also plenty of (unproven) players behind him.
But make no mistake. IU will not have a strong rushing game in 2011.
No. 1: Duane Bennett (Sr)
No. 2: Open
No. 3: Open
FB: Ed Cotton (Jr)
Players in the Mix: Donnell Kirkwood (So) OR Lamonte Edwards (RFr)
Breakdown: The second-worst rushing offense in the conference last season was Minnesota, which averaged 3.63 YPC.
Part of the reason for that was playing in a stupid offense for a lousy coach. That will change this season.
All but one of the Gophers' backs return—DeLeon Eskridge has transferred—and they will probably share carries. None of the backs are great by any stretch of the imagination, but they are all serviceable if they are running behind a strong offensive line.
Therein lies the rub, because Minnesota will have arguably the worst offensive line in the conference next season.
However, the wildcard—or wildcat as it were—is quarterback MarQueis Gray, who is a strong rusher and will receive a lot of carries in new coach Jerry Kill's offense. If he can take the heat off the running backs, they may have a chance to be successful.
No. 1: Ralph Bolden (Jr)
No. 2: Open
No. 3: Open
FB: Jared Crank (Sr)
Players in the Mix: Akeem Shavers (Juco), Reggie Pegram (So), Akeem Hunt (TrFr), Gavin Roberts (Jr)
Breakdown: Purdue had the sixth-best rushing game in 2010, which is impressive when one considers the offense was starting a true freshman quarterback, a fullback in the tailback position and the top receiver missed most of the year.
One can only imagine how they would have done if their top tailback—Ralph Bolden—hadn't been lost to an ACL tear before the season.
In 2009, Bolden had 935 yards for 4.68 YPC and nine touchdowns. He will be back this season, and will present a strong option behind a veteran offensive line. Dual-threat quarterback Rob Henry will also be a help in the running game.
The big questions are, is Bolden 100 percent and which players will supply the depth?
No. 1: Marcus Coker (So)
No. 2: Open
No. 3: Open
FB: Brad Rogers (So) OR Jonathan Gimm (Jr)
Players in the mix: Jason White (Jr), De'Andre Johnson (RFr), Miki'al McCall (TrFr), Jordan Canzeri (TrFr)
Breakdown: The Hawks were seventh in YPC with 4.30. Their top rusher for the past two years—Adam Robinson—is no longer with the team.
However, Marcus Coker is probably a better, more talented option than A-Rob. In 2010, Coker ran for 622 yards on 114 carries. This was good for 5.46 YPC. He played and thrived against good defenses (Ohio State), average defenses (Missouri) and bad defenses (Ball State). There is no question he is a quality back.
What is in question is where will the depth come from? In all probability, it will have to come from a true freshman.
Also, can Coker keep up his productivity through a full 12-game season?
Finally, fullback Brad Rogers has been on the shelf with a heart ailment since the bowl game. If he can play, he will add an element of versatility to the Iowa offense. If he can't, then Jonathan Gimm will serve strictly as a battering ram.
No. 1: Open
No. 2: Open
No. 3: Open
FB: Stephen Hopkins (So) OR John McColgan (Sr)
Players in the Mix: Michael Shaw (Sr), Vincent Smith (Jr), Michael Cox (Jr), Fitzgerald Touissaint (So), Stephen Hopkins (So), Teric Jones (Jr)
Breakdown: Michigan was tops in the conference with 5.58 YPC, but that is not a reflection of the running backs. It is strictly a reflection of quarterback Denard Robinson, who had 6.65 YPC.
The running backs' production was more humble. Collectively, they averaged 4.92 YPC in 265 carries, which would have been good for fifth in the conference. Nevertheless, one has to consider that opposing defenses were focused wholly on Denard Robinson and the running backs couldn't eke out 3.50 YPC against good defenses.
This season, with a new coach and offense, some of the burden of the running game will be taken off Robinson's shoulders and put on the running backs. It is arguable how much Robinson will be allowed to run the ball in Brady Hoke's offense, but it is not arguable that he will run substantially less.
In effect, it is imperative that a feature back or two step up, and give UM what it hasn't had since 2007—a dangerous, consistently productive running back.
Meanwhile, Rich Rodriguez didn't use the fullback. Consequently, Brady Hoke will either employ 230 lb. Stephen Hopkins or walk-on John McColgan in double-duty.
No. 1: Silas Redd (So)
No. 3: Brandon Beachum (Sr) OR Curtis Dukes (So)
FB: Joe Suhey (Sr)
Players in the Mix: None
Breakdown: Last season, Penn State ranked eighth in the Big Ten with 4.14 YPC. That was due to an offensive line that has been struggling going on three years now, and a quarterback situation that has yet to resolve itself.
Despite sharing carries with Penn State's all-time leading rusher, Evan Royster, Silas Redd was arguably PSU's best back. He had the best YPC on the team with 5.68.
Now, he will need to prove he can turn it on against top teams (3.79 YPC against ranked foes), and that he can carry the rock 20 times a game, 12 games a season.
This could be complicated with depth issues PSU might have with the recent departure of career utility man Stephfon Green.
Joe Suhey will reprise his role as fullback. He won't carry the ball much, but he is an adequate receiver, having logged 15 receptions in 2010.
In closing, despite graduating Royster, Penn State will be fine at running back. The real questions concern the offensive line and quarterback.
No. 1: Jason Ford (Sr)
No. 2: Troy Pollard (Sr)
No. 3: Bud Golden (So)
FB: Jay Prosch (So)
Players in the Mix: Donovonn Young (TrFr)
Breakdown: Jason Ford has a good deal of experience for a player that has never been the go-to guy. In 277 career carries, he has 1,362 yards for 4.92 yards and 19 touchdowns.
He is a big between-the-tackles rusher that is unlikely to have many carries over 10 yards. On the other hand, he is also unlikely to have many negative yardage plays.
Last year, playing behind Mikel Leshoure, Ford averaged over one full yard less than arguably the Big Ten's best back. This was despite playing against a softened up defense.
Meanwhile, Troy Pollard is the lightening to Ford's thunder. At 190 lbs., he won't run many linebackers over, but look out if he gets to the second level. Pollard doesn't have much experience in his three seasons, as he has primarily served as a kick returner and third back behind Leshoure and Ford.
Meanwhile, Jay Prosch is unlikely to touch the ball much—he had one reception and no carries last season—but he was a key element in Leshoure's 2010 success.
Overall, this is a good, experienced group of backs. There won't be any surprises here. What you see and expect from the Illini running backs is probably what you're going to get in 2011.
No. 1: Rex Burkhead (Jr)
No. 2: Open
No. 3: Open
FB: Tyler Legate (Sr)
Players in the Mix: Aaron Green (TrFr), Ameer Abdullah (TrFr), Austin Jones (Sr)
Breakdown: Last season, Nebraska had the best rushing offense in the Big 12 with 5.47 YPC.
This season, they will be without last year's top rusher, Roy Helu.
Rex Burkhead will take his place. Last season, Burkhead carried the ball 172 times for 951 yards and seven touchdowns. He is not likely to break many long runs. In fact, his longest on the season was 33 yards.
On the other hand, his 5.47 YPC is a true indication of his mean. He will get carry the ball for six yards four times, as opposed to 20 two-yard carries for every 60-yard touchdown dash.
The big question concerning Nebraska's running backs is who will serve as the backup? All indications are it will be a true freshman.
Also, with a new offensive coordinator, there might be a scheme change. Will this affect the running game?
No. 1: Boom Herron (Sr)*
No. 2: Jaamal Berry (So)
No. 3: Open
FB: Zach Boren (Jr)
Players in the Mix: Carlos Hyde (So), Roderick Smith (RFr)
Breakdown: Last season, Ohio State had the third-best YPC in the conference with 5.23. Their top running back—Boom Herron—will be back, but he will be suspended for the first five games. In 2010, Herron had 1,155 yards for 5.35 YPC and 16 touchdowns.
The running back position should be fine in Herron's absence. Jaamal Berry is an extremely talented athlete in a position where talent is imperative. And when Herron does come back, OSU will have a nice one-two combination.
The bigger issue is the absence of 2010's No. 2 ball carrier, quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor will attempt to pry his wares and show off his tattoos in an NFL city near you, but as a Buckeye, he had to be accounted for at all times. This opened things up for the running backs.
The two quarterbacks that will vie for the starting job are very different quarterbacks that would have very different offenses tailored around them.
In the end, OSU has a solid running back group, but the questions in other areas of the offense could have a substantial effect on the running back's productivity.
No. 1: Edwin Baker (Jr)*
No. 2: Le'Veon Bell (So)
No. 3: Larry Caper (Jr)
FB: Todd Anderson
Players in the Mix: Nick Hill (RFr)
Breakdown: MSU was fifth in the conference in 2010 with 4.45 YPC. If you take out the quarterbacks' minus-173 yards rushing (by far, the worst in the conference), you get an even more respectable 4.85 (which would still be fifth).
The Spartans have three backs that would probably start for half the teams in the conference. Baker is top man, as he had 207 carries for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns. Bell carried the ball 107 times for 605 yards and eight touchdowns.
Caper is the odd-man-out in this scenario, as he didn't touch the ball much in 2010. Still, he is a nice option to have as the third man.
There are no issues or questions with this group, except one. The Spartans averaged minus-.354 against the top two rush defenses they played—Iowa and Alabama.
Individually, Baker had 21 carries for 1.67 YPC.
Those were MSU's only two losses on the season. The question is, was it a coincidence that MSU got squashed by the only two Top 20 (or Top 40, for that matter) rush defenses they faced in 2010?
There is plenty of talent in Michigan State's backfield. They will need to show up against tough defenses.
No. 1: Montee Ball (Jr)
No. 2: James White (So)*
No. 3: Open
FB: Bradie Ewing (Sr)
Players in the Mix: Melvin Gordon (TrFr), Jeff Lewis (RFr)
Breakdown: UW ran for 5.47 YPC in 2010, which was second highest in the Big Ten. They had two 1,000-yard rushers, and a third that went for 996 yards.
The top rusher—in terms of yardage—is James White. White ran for 1,052 yards for 6.74 YPC and 14 touchdowns.
The 996-yard man is also back in the form of Montee Ball. Ball had 6.11 YPC for 18 touchdowns.
Both are also able receivers.
There are no questions with this group. Ball is the thunder and White is the lightening. Bradie Ewing is the battering ram.
They will be running behind a strong offensive line, and the best any team is likely to do is contain them.
About the only question here is whether Melvin Gordon or Jeff Lewis will win the third spot.