Ranking the Big Ten Running Backs — Leaders Division
By Tony Gerdeman
When it comes to running backs in 2012, the Big Ten is providing slim pickings. There are only four returning tailbacks who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, and while those same four are expected to duplicate their feats, there may not be many others in the conference who join them this season.
Much of the running back talent in the Big Ten this season is untested, and some of it may not even be all that talented. That being said, I think the Leaders Division has the slight advantage of the Legends Division at the position, thought it is certainly nothing to brag about.
So, now that I have thoroughly excited you about the running back prospects of the Big Ten, let's take a look at the Leaders Division.
Starter: Montee Ball (307-1,954 33 TDs)
Backups: James White (141-741 6 TDs), Jeffrey Lewis (33-188 1 TD), Melvin Gordon (20-102 1 TD), Vonte Jackson*, Leo Musso*
Montee Ball's one million touchdowns last year were a school record, and it's a record that he's not likely to break this season. Ball carried the ball almost an excessive amount last season, as many of his carries came when games were no longer in doubt. If it's possible to run up a score by running the ball, the Badgers certainly did that last year with Ball. But it's hard to blame Bret Bielema for riding such a player, especially when that player responds time after time. Things will likely be a little different this year, as the loss of quarterback Russell Wilson will be felt. However, the Badgers could run the ball with a French circus clown playing quarterback, so don't expect a sudden lack of running game in Madison. James White took a back seat last year after winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2010, but he's still pretty good as well. The talk all spring, however, was about redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon. He looks like he's the next in line, but they will have to find carries for him this year as well. Jeffrey Lewis, who also got a good amount of attention last spring, looks to be the odd man out this year. True freshman Vonte Jackson is already enrolled, but he is still recovering from an injury suffered in high school.
3. Penn State
Starter: Silas Redd (244-1241 7 TDs)
Backups: Curtis Dukes (41-237 1 TD), Bill Belton (13-65), Zach Zwinak, Derek Day, Deron Thompson, Akeel Lynch*
Silas Redd had a great first half of 2011, but faded down the stretch, even relegating carries to Stephfon Green. Redd averaged 140.6 yards rushing per game over his first five Big Ten games, but finished with just a 60.7 yard average over his final three. It should be noted that those final three games came against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin, who were probably the three best conference defenses they faced last year. Still, his average yards per carry (5.1) never waned, and were even higher (5.2) over those last three games. For Penn State to get the most out of Redd this year, they may have to go a bit easier on him than the 26.6 carries per game the first five Big Ten games saw him get. Curtis Dukes is a 240-pound load that can move a pile, or go straight through it. He took the spring off in order to focus on academics, but he'll be expected to contribute this fall. Bill Belton, who Buckeye fans saw at wildcat, has moved to running back full time and will have an opportunity to get the ball in a variety of ways. True freshman Akeel Lynch has folks excited, and given the limited depth in Happy Valley, he should get the ball here and there in 2012.
6. Ohio State
Starter: Jordan Hall (100-408 2 TDs)
Backups: Carlos Hyde (106-566 6 TDs), Rod Smith (29-116 1 TD), Bri'onte Dunn*, Warren Ball*
While the Buckeyes don't return a workhorse, they do return a couple of tailbacks that have the Ohio State coaches excited. Jordan Hall has already been tabbed as one of the team's playmakers, and plays are being designed in both the run and pass game specifically for him. He may not be a 20-carry per game back, but he could be a guy who gets 15-18 touches on the ground and in the air. Carlos Hyde, on the other hand, could certainly fit the bill as a workhorse. He's big (6-0 235), but he's also the fastest tailback on the roster (4.49). He was the Buckeyes' only big-play threat last year not named Braxton Miller. Miller's ability in the read option will only make Hyde and Hall more effective. There will be times when defenses have to pick their poison defending the run. Rod Smith and true freshman Bri'onte Dunn are battling for the third tailback spot. Dunn enrolled early and participated in the spring. He showed flashes, but didn't appear to be as physical as expected. Smith also had his moments, but both are clearly behind Hall and Hyde. Even though Urban Meyer has said that he doesn't redshirt, Warren Ball is almost certainly a redshirt as there aren't even carries enough for four tailbacks, let alone a fifth in Ball.
Starter: Donovonn Young (87-451 6 TDs)
Backups: Josh Ferguson (14-52), Ean Days, Dami Ayoola*, Devin Church*, Lakeith Walls*, Miles Osei
There is plenty of promise in the backfield for the Illini, but a current lack of production. Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson came in as true freshmen last year and had people around the program excited. Ferguson ended up getting injured and redshirting, and Young ended up being almost indispensible. This year much more is expected of them both. Young will likely get most of the carries, and should do some damage with those touches. However, Ferguson has shown all spring that he can make plays, and the coaches will be looking to capitalize on his quickness and speed. While a bit undersized--he is only around 180 pounds--his shiftiness fits in well with what Tim Beckman is looking to accomplish. Three freshmen will enter the fray come the fall, and all present possibilities. Dami Ayoola, from St. Thomas Aquinas, turned down offers from Auburn, Notre Dame and West Virginia. Devin Church is a speedster out of Michigan that Beckman was recruiting at Toledo. Lakeith Walls is a 6-3 190 pound athlete out of Cleveland who was originally committed to North Carolina State. Miles Osei, who can also play quarterback, will be a jack of all trades this season.
Starter: Stephen Houston (151-802 8 TDs)
Backups: D'Angelo Roberts (61-263 4 TDs), Matt Perez (58-195 4 TDs), Tevin Coleman*, Isaiah Roundtree
As a sophomore last season, Stephen Houston started slowly. He only carried the ball 22 times over his first four games. However, he averaged 89 yards rushing per game in Big Ten play. Had he gotten the ball enough to average 89 yards per game the first four weeks, his 802 yards would've turned into nearly 1,100. He teamed with quarterback Tre Roberson tremendously well and things should only be brighter this year. A 1,200-yard season isn't out of the realm of possibility, provided Houston puts up at least 500 of those yards out of conference. Indiana hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Levron Williams in 2001, but Houston would seem to be the best bet to reach that number since Williams himself. The plan this season will be to use the running backs in the passing game more than they did last year. That will include lining up out wide and running receiver routes. Kevin Wilson is looking for playmakers anywhere he can find them, and will give them the ball wherever they can handle it. Isaiah Roundtree is a transfer from Morehead State who has been a pleasant surprise. D'Angelo Roberts and Matt Perez are known quantities, though limited. Tevin Campbell is a true freshman who chose the Hoosiers over Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa and Georgia Tech.
Possible Starters: Ralph Bolden (148-674 6 TDs), Akeem Shavers (111-519 6 TDs)
Backups: Akeem Hunt (33-287 2 TDs), Doug Gentry
Ralph Bolden is once again recovering from an ACL injury and while most assume he will be back for the season, there is still question as to how effective he will be when he returns. Even if he was healthy, he's still a guy who has never finished with an average better than 4.7 yards per carry. That's pedestrian even for Purdue standards. Akeem Shavers had a strong bowl game (149 yards rushing against Western Michigan), but did absolutely nothing in the final six games of the Big Ten season (32-74). The question about Shavers is whether or not he is the back that gained 149 yards or the back who gained half of that in his previous six games. He has impressed in the spring and certainly has ability, but Big Ten defenses weren't all that impressed with him last year. If Bolden isn't healthy, Shavers could be in line for 20 carries per game, but only if he's profitable with those carries. Akeem Hunt showed himself to be a big-play tailback last year, but at his size (5-9 175), he's only a change of pace back at this point. Doug Gentry is a redshirt freshman that may need to play simply because the Boilermakers need to find answers.
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