Is there a conference with a better collection of running backs than the Big Ten? Maybe not. The group instantly became one of the best in the nation when Wisconsin’s Montee Ball announced he would return for his senior season. Add it all up, and 12 of last season’s top 13 rushers are back. The only departure: Iowa’s Marcus Coker, who transferred to FCS Stony Brook after ranking No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,384 yards in 2012.
Four quarterbacks are among the top 12 returning rushers: Michigan’s Denard Robinson (1,176); Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray (966); Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez (874); Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (715). But this list is all about running backs. Here is my Top 10. See my previous rankings over here.
1. Montee Ball, 5-11, 212, Sr., Wisconsin. He surprised many by opting to return for his senior season after pacing the nation with 1,923 yards rushing and scoring an NCAA single-season record-tying 39 touchdowns en route to earning Big Ten MVP honors. What will Ball, the top returning rusher in the nation with 3,310 career yards who hasn’t lost a fumble in 617 career touches, do for an encore? Win the Heisman? Lead the Badgers to a third consecutive Rose Bowl? (See his stat page.)
2. Rex Burkhead, 5-11, 210, Sr., Nebraska. The guy is a flat-out workhorse who refuses to be out hustled. Burkhead carried the ball at least 20 times in eight games last season. And against Iowa in the regular-season finale, he carried a school single-game record 38 times. Add it all up, and Burkhead finished third in the Big Ten with 1,357 yards rushing as the focal point of the offense. But the plan in 2012 is for Burkhead—who has a shot to finish as the No. 2 rusher in Cornhusker annals–to not have to carry as big a load. We shall see. (See his stat page.)
3. Le’Veon Bell, 6-2, 238, Jr., Michigan State. Of all the backs on this list, Bell may be the best pro prospect. He made a name for himself last season, notching 948 yards rushing. Look for Bell, who has 1,553 career rushing yards, to go well beyond his 2011 total this season. Bell is a physical back who excels between the tackles but also has a burst around the corner. He will be counted on heavily early in the season while a new quarterback and set of receivers get acclimated. And Bell is capable. (See his stat page.)
4. Fitzgerald Toussaint, 5-10, 195, Jr., Michigan. Toussaint ran for 80 yards in his first career start last season—vs. Western Michigan in the season opener—and never looked back in becoming the 31st Wolverines to notch a 1,000-yard season. He essentially came out of nowhere in 2011 by rushing for 1,041 yards after entering the season with 87 career yards on the ground. And it was Toussaint’s emergence that made the Wolverine offense go last year, as he took pressure off quarterback Denard Robinson and made him more effective. (See his stat page.)
5. Silas Redd, 5-10, 200, Sr., Penn State. He is going to have to carry a big load while the passing game of new coach Bill O’Brien’s offense takes form. And Redd is up to the task, but he’ll be working behind a line that has just one returning starter. Redd emerged as a star last season, when he ran for 1,241 yards. He hit his stride in October, averaging 140.6 yards rushing on an average of 26 totes before wearing down. Don’t be shocked to see Redd become more of a factor in the passing game in the NFL-style offense of O’Brien. (See his stat page.)
6. James White, 5-10, 197, Jr. Wisconsin. He actually was ahead of Montee Ball back in 2010, running for a team-leading 1,052 yards as a freshman with Ball notching 996. But Ball won the job last season, relegating White to 713 yards rushing in 2011. He’s a speedier option than Ball who is capable of scoring each time he touches the ball. (See his stat page.)
7. Jordan Hall, 5-9, 198, Sr., Ohio State. The quick and explosive Hall is supposed to fill a Percy Harvin-type role for Ohio State, serving as a versatile and multi-purpose weapon as a runner and receiver in the Buckeyes’ new spread scheme. New coach Urban Meyer says Hall is one of the few “wow” players for an offense that’s looking for playmakers. Playing behind Daniel “Boom” Herron last season, Hall ran for 405 yards and also caught 12 passes. He also was one of the Big Ten’s top kickoff and punt return men in 2011. Bottom line: Hall could be in store for a huge season. (See his stat page.)
8. Ralph Bolden, 5-9, 190, Sr., Purdue. He is a proven producer—if he can stay healthy. Bolden has suffered an ACL tear in his right knee three times, the most recent at Indiana in the regular-season finale last season, which he finished with 674 yards. Bolden rushed for 935 yards in 2009, and then missed 2010 with a knee injury suffered in spring drills. The Boilermakers need him to stay on the field. (See his stat page.)
9. Stephen Houston, 6-0, 222, Jr., Indiana. He arrived from a junior college and made an immediate impact with 802 yards rushing. A physical back with power, Houston also is a weapon out of the backfield, hauling in 17 receptions. He will need to move the chains in short-yard situations for an offense that figures to rely more on the pass in 2012. (See his stat page.)
10. Donovonn Young, 6-0, 215, So., Illinois. He played a key role as a true freshman last season, running for 451 yards with six touchdowns. Young also caught eight passes. He looks primed to take the proverbial next step in his development in Tim Beckman’s new attack, which may see Young catch more passes. (See his stat page.)
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