Dienhart: Which Big Ten team tops our RB ratings?

The Big Ten lost its top two rushers in Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball. And Nebraska standout Rex Burkhead also is gone. But most of the conference’s other top running backs are back. Here is how I rank the Big Ten running back units, and it’s my latest look at how the various football teams units stack up by position. Read the others right here. Agree? Disagree? Tell me in the comments below, email me about here, or track me down on Twitter (@BTNTomDienhart).

Let’s get to it.

1. Wisconsin. Montee Ball and his NCAA-record 83 touchdowns and 5,140 career yards rushing are gone along with a pile of accolades. He also ran for a Big Ten-high 1,830 yards in 2012. But don’t weep for the Badgers. Senior James White ran for 1,052 yards in 2010 and has 2,571 career rushing yards; he can score on any carry. Sophomore Melvin Gordon is a slasher who teems with potential, while Jeffrey Lewis is bigger back who can move the pile.

Look at White’s overall stats here:

Year Team G Rush Yds Yd/Rush TDs Rec Yds Yd/Rec TDs
2010 Wisc 12 156 1052 6.7 14 11 88 8.0 0
2011 Wisc 14 141 713 5.1 6 15 150 10.0 0
2012 Wisc 14 125 806 6.4 12 8 132 16.5 1
Career 40 422 2571 6.1 32 34 370 10.9 1

2. Northwestern. Lots of options, led by senior Venric Mark. The pint-sized Mark has a burst, rushing for 1,366 yards last year; no returning Big Ten back ran for more yards. He was the first NU back to crack the 1,000-yard barrier since 2006. Workmanlike junior Mike Trumpy is back. Malin Jones arrived with some hype before redshirting as a freshman. Sophomore Treyvon Green adds depth to a loaded position.

3. Ohio State. Every key contributor from last season is back. Senior Carlos Hyde (970 yards) and junior Rod Smith (214) are big backs. Senior Jordan Hall will play a Percy Harvin-type role; he’s shifty speedster who was limited to seven games in 2012 because of a bad foot. Sophomore Bri’onte Dunn is another big back who has a burst. Braxton Miller led the team with 1,271 yards rushing.

4. Nebraska. Yes, Rex Burkhead is gone. But he missed six games last year because of a knee injury. That allowed junior Ameer Abdullah to emerge, and the sawed-off speedster capitalized with 1,137 yards rushing. Physical freak Imani Cross is back to move the pile as a sophomore. Incoming freshmen Adam Taylor or Terrell Newby could play key roles.

[ UNIT RANKINGS: Read our 2013 rankings for other units so far. ]

5. Michigan. The Wolverines need better production from the tailback spot. It will help that senior Fitz Toussaint should be ready to go after suffering a season-ending broken leg vs. Iowa in 2012. He needs to regain his 2011 form, when he ran for 1,041 yards. And Michigan welcomes freshman Derrick Green, who is considered by many to be the top prep back in the nation. There’s depth here too with junior Thomas Rawls and sophomore Justice Hayes also in the mix.

6. Penn State. When Silas Redd transferred to USC prior to last season, many wondered how the Nittany Lions would get significant production from the running back spot. Junior Zach Zwinak emerged from nowhere to run for 1,000 yards. Akeel Lynch is a promising redshirt freshman who could be a difference-maker. Junior Bill Belton, a former receiver, is a speedster who is poised to breakout.

7. Iowa. At one time, this was a hexed position. Remember the injuries? The transfers? But no more. All of that pain and suffering has resulted in proven depth. Junior Mark Weisman emerged last season to become a star en route to rushing for 815 yards. Junior Damon Bullock is capable. Sophomore Jordan Canzeri is back from a knee injury that cost him 2012.

8. Indiana. A loaded Hoosiers’ offense will get a push from two nice backs in burly senior Stephen Houston and sophomore Tevin Coleman. Houston is a physical back who ran for 749 yards and 12 scores last season. And Houston has great hands, grabbing 37 passes. Indiana wants to be more physical, especially in the red zone. These two backs are capable but need better play up front.

9. Minnesota. The Gophers want more big plays from their backs, and better line play will help. This is a workmanlike crew led by compact and powerful junior Donnell Kirkwood, a productive grinder who had 926 yards rushing in 2012 after struggling with hamstring issues earlier in his career. Will this be the year junior David Cobb finally fulfills his potential? He looked good in the spring and is the top athlete of the unit. Sophomore Rodrick Williams is a 235-pound back who can bang. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Berkley Edwards, who could impact.

10. Illinois. There are no Rashard Mendenhalls or Mikel Leshoures, but the Fighting Illini have a couple of nice options in physical junior Donovonn Young (571 yards rushing) and speedy sophomore Josh Ferguson. Each excels at catching the ball. Young led the team and paced Big Ten backs with 38 catches; Ferguson had 29. Better play by the line will help an offense that ranked 11th in the Big Ten in rushing last season. Illinois wants more of a downhill attack.

11. Michigan State. So many unknowns, as no one emerged in the spring to take over for workhorse Le’Veon Bell, who carried a league-high 382 times in 2012 and ran for 1,793 yards. His 137.9 rushing yards per game led the Big Ten. Redshirt freshman Riley Bullough moved from linebacker and impressed. Diminutive junior Nick Hill has the most experience. Also back are junior Jeremy Langford and smallish redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins. Keep an eye on incoming freshmen Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams. One could win the job.

12. Purdue. New coach Darrell Hazell wants a physical attack. Does he have the backs to do it with Akeem Shavers gone after leading the team with 871 yards rushing in 2012? Is Akeem Hunt a guy who can carry the load as a No. 1 back? The jury is out, but the diminutive senior has nice speed. At 258 pounds, junior Brandon Cottom is the ultimate power back. Redshirt freshman Robert Gregory, a converted quarterback, turned some heads in the spring. True freshman David Yancey could get a shot after arriving early for spring ball.


About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (14 Comments)
Jim Stewart on 5/28/2013 @ 3:43pm EDT Said:

Ohio State is so deep at Running Back, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more than one with 1,000+ yards rushing. And if Jordan Hall can stay healthy, he should get more than 1,000 all purpose yards. Wisconsin and MSU always produce “workhorses” though…… maybe The B1G will get a little more respect this year?

Sean on 5/28/2013 @ 5:31pm EDT Said:

I don’t see Ohio State having anyone rush for over 1000 yards. Not because they don’t have talented backs, but because they’ll split the carries so much between different running backs.

    Delmar Jones on 5/29/2013 @ 11:14am EDT Said:

    Well Sean you could be right but I for one don’t agree. Last your Miller lead the team in rushing with Hyde rushing for 970 and he did not play in two games do to injury. Meyer has never had a 1000 yard back but this year he will have one. With the threat of Miller and the threat of the slot receivers, who by the way are going make a big big contribution this season will open it up for Hyde to rush for over a 1000 yards this season.

Ray on 5/28/2013 @ 5:59pm EDT Said:

Michigan will be loaded at RB. The transition to the pro-style will be much easier process with Fitzgerald healthy and Freshman Green and Smith. Lots of options. Don’t sleep on Northfleet either.

K. John on 5/28/2013 @ 8:31pm EDT Said:

Penn State has the leagues top returning back, a stud in making in Lynch and the conferences most dynamic player in Bill Belton. Penn State is #1 and not by a little bit either. Ohio State is the clear number two. Northwestern three.

Common Sense on 5/28/2013 @ 8:53pm EDT Said:

Glad to see Big Blue in the top 5 sad to see MSU at the bottom as MSU Doug knows full well when you are not the lead dog MSU Doug’s view never changes!!!

Delmar Jones on 5/28/2013 @ 9:26pm EDT Said:

Jim I would have agree with you Ohio State has a lot of good backs and their some young guys coming in that will probably make a lot of noise before the season is over. The Buckeye are going to light up the Big Ten this year. GO BUCKS

@K. John on 5/29/2013 @ 12:17pm EDT Said:

Zwinak is not even close to proving he is the best back in the conference, and Lynch and Belton have even more to prove. Mark is probably the best looking option right now, but nobody has the combination like White and Gordon.

Jeremy on 5/29/2013 @ 12:29pm EDT Said:

I do not see any team outrushing Nebraska this year. The Huskers are as talented and deep as OSU and have better depth than UW or NW. Like OSU’s Miller, Martinez will also be a force on the ground.

I see it this way;

1) Nebraska
1) Ohio State
3) Wisconsin
4) Northwestern
5) Iowa
6) Penn State
7) Michigan
8) Indiana
8) Minnesota
10) Illinois
11) Purdue
12) Michigan State

huskerfanbb on 5/29/2013 @ 12:51pm EDT Said:

K. John– Penn State is not nearly number 1. Dienhart probably has them about right. Zwinak is not the number 1 returning back in the B1G. He is definitely behind Abdullah, Hyde, White, Mark, and probably Touissant.

If anything, Iowa is too high. They don’t have a back on the roster that would crack the three deep at any of the top 5 schools on his list.

The big question is Mighigan State. It’s hard to see them not being in the top half of the league in rushing no matter who is toting it–but Bell is a big loss. They certainly have lost more than any other school, including Wisconsin and Montee Ball.

brandon on 5/29/2013 @ 4:10pm EDT Said:

@Jeremy: Keep on drinking that koolaid. As a unit, Nebraska simply doesn’t match up against Wisconsin. Ameer is a quality back, but Cross averaged a pedestrian 3.8 per carry on a whopping 25 carries in B1G play. Melvin Gordon, as the #3 back behind one of the most prolific runners of our time and another back that grabbed 1000 yards a couple years back as a third string freshman, put up more than 10 per carry for 440 yards in B1G play. Wisconsin has two home run hitters. Behind them they’ve got Vonte Jackson and Corey Clement coming on board, two very well regarded recruits, along with Jeff Lewis and Derek Watt to move the pile if needed. Nebraska may indeed have the most rushing yards when it’s all done, but it won’t be due to their RBs. And I’ll tolerate giving up rushing yards to TMart since he’s so damn prone to fumbling the ball (47 in 38 career games!!!!!!).

ieatbadger on 5/29/2013 @ 8:19pm EDT Said:

Brandon, you are dreaming about koolaid while you sleep. Jeremy is spot on!

JB Furrow on 5/30/2013 @ 11:01am EDT Said:

Nebraskas rushing numbers will be better than 4th in league. Defenses will need to respect the passing game and a mobile QB. They can’t just defend the run. As far as talent at RB it will depend on the how the 2 freshmen progress this year to see if the teams RB’s are better than 4th in league.

Josh on 5/30/2013 @ 12:51pm EDT Said:

Wisconsin has the most proficient rushing offense (led by RBs, which this list is based on) and we all remember what it did to Nebraska. Nebraska would be higher if Burkhead didn’t graduate, but they should probably be above OSU. Michigan at 5th is reasonable, hard to expect what will come from the tailbacks next season. Rest look good.