Penn State tops offensive backfield rankings

The dog days of summer are settling in. That means two things: The Cubs’ season is officially over, and it’s time to look at the Big Ten units. I’ll begin with a look at the offensive backfields. And, as you’ll see, there is a lot of talent at running back—as well as some top-flight quarterbacks.

1. Penn State. The Nittany Lions have an impressive array of talent led by QB Christian Hackenberg, who has few peers as a passer and is a sure-fire future first-round selection. There also is a collection of nice running backs, including the likes of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. Each is capable of starting. The rugged Zwinak has rushed for 1,989 yards and 18 touchdowns the last two seasons.

2. Michigan State. QB Connor Cook was a revelation last season, emerging early on to become one of the top signal-callers in the nation. And just think: He has two years of eligibility left. No one saw RB Jeremy Langford rushing for 1,422 yards last season. Depth is solid, including Delton Williams.

3. Ohio State. Yes, RB Carlos Hyde is gone. But QB Braxton Miller is back to reprise his role as one of the nation’s most deadly weapons. This could be his Heisman season. The Buckeyes have no shortage of promising running backs, with Ezekiel Elliott leading the charge.

4. Iowa. If you see Kirk Ferentz crack a smile, it’s because of this unit. QB Jake Rudock will benefit from the growing pains he endured as a first-time starter in 2013. He needs to refine his down-field passing and go from game manager to playmaker. It has gone from famine to feast at running back with the likes of Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri at a position stocked with talent.

5. Nebraska. QB Tommy Armstrong had a baptism by fire last season, when Taylor Martinez endured an injury-filled season. Armstrong had his moments but needs to improve his accuracy, although it’s difficult to argue with his 7-1 mark as a starter. Ameer Abdullah is one of the nation’s finest running backs, a true game-breaker. Backup Imani Cross may be the most physical back in the Big Ten.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

6. Wisconsin. You get the feeling Badger coaches feel they can do better at quarterback than Joel Stave. But is anyone on this roster a better option? In a perfect world, Gary Andersen would have a more mobile signal-caller. Melvin Gordon is primed to reprise his role as one of the nation’s top backs. He’s a Heisman threat. RB Corey Clement teems with potential.

7. Indiana. The transfer of Tre Roberson hurts depth at quarterback. But Nate Sudfeld looks primed for stardom. Tevin Coleman is one of the most underrated running backs in the nation, a bigger back with some giddy-up. D’Angelo Roberts is a shifty back.

8. Rutgers. Gary Nova is a steady hand under center for the Scarlet Knights. The good: 51 career TD passes. The bad: 39 career picks. Paul James is a quality back. But can he stay healthy? Depth is good behind him.

9. Minnesota. This is Mitch Leidner’s team. And coaches have to like how he played in the bowl game. But Leidner is a work in progress as a passer. RB David Cobb emerged from nowhere to run for over 1,000 yards. Depth is strong with Rodrick Williams, Donnell Kirkwood and speedy youngster Berkley Edwards.

10. Northwestern. The Wildcats will miss QB Kain Colter, who could make something out of nothing and was an underrated passer. Trevor Siemian assumes command. He’s a veteran hand and a good passer but is nowhere near the athlete that Colter was. Can RB Venric Mark regain his 2012 form when he ran for 1,366 yards? Injuries ruined 2013. Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley can carry the load if needed.

11. Michigan. QB Devin Gardner teems with talent and has looked spectacular at times (remember the ND game?). He needs more consistency and can’t force things. Running back was a sore spot last season. Yes, a struggling line was an issue. But better play is needed behind Gardner, beginning with Derrick Green. Keep an eye on De’Veon Smith.

12. Maryland. QB C.J. Brown is back for a sixth season. He’s a better runner than passer, but he has made good strides in coordinator Mike Locksley’s offense. The search if on for a starting back. There are options galore, with Brandon Ross, Jacquille Veii, Wes Brown and Albert Reid in the hunt.

13. Illinois. This is one of the most intriguing backfields in the Big Ten. The X-factor is Oklahoma State transfer QB Wes Lunt. If he’s as good as many think, the Fighting Illini could improve and perhaps make a bowl push. Josh Ferguson is a jack-of-all trades running back who excels as a pass catcher.

14. Purdue. The Boilermakers may have found something in QB Danny Etling, who was thrown into the fire (and to the wolves) last season as a true freshman. But some think he’ll be pushed for his job by Austin Appleby and David Blough. Stay tuned. It’s hoped converted wideout Raheem Mostert will become a threat at running back with his super speed. Akeem Hunt is a diminutive back with slipperiness.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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.


Your Opinion?
Show Comments (16 Comments)
Scott on 6/30/2014 @ 11:32am EDT Said:

Not considering the quality of the fullbacks is a dangerous omission. Like, you know, the guy who was almost as responsible as any offensive player for beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl?

Big Ten Fan on 6/30/2014 @ 1:46pm EDT Said:

Good point Scott. I always find it disappointing when writers refuse to consider fullbacks given that the majority of the conference still use them.

brian snodgrass on 6/30/2014 @ 3:04pm EDT Said:

Penn State at #1 and Nebraska at #5 lol thats amusing.

Doug on 6/30/2014 @ 5:25pm EDT Said:

good point Brian, don’t know what this guy is smoking but when it is said and done Nebraska will lead the Big Ten in rushing in 2014

Karen Linzmeeir on 6/30/2014 @ 6:26pm EDT Said:

The Badgers are only in the middle of the pack? We are Running Back U. Whether the QB position is filled by Joel Stave or someone else will not change the talent of Melvin Gordan….and Melvin’s backup is also very dangerous. Wisconsin deserves to be in the top 3 on the strength of their stable of running backs.

Big Ten Fan on 6/30/2014 @ 10:03pm EDT Said:

Penn State is clearly number one here. As a true freshmen, Christian Hackenburg was the best QB the Big Ten has had since Darryl Clark. His backup, a true freshmen, would start for ten Big Ten teams. Zack Zwinak is the best power runner in the country. Bill Belton is the best receiver at the position in the league and the sky’s the limit for Akeel Lynch.

Number two is easy as well. Connor Cook was the second best QB in the Big Ten last season. There isn’t much behind him though. Jeremy Langford is a good back and there is depth. They are set at fullback. Easy.

Number three is interesting. Braxton Miller is still the best running back in the Big Ten. And yes, he is a running back, not a quarterback. Running back is suspect. Nebraska has a very good pair of backs but highly suspect at quarterback. Wisconsin is similarly well suited at running back but suspect at QB. With that said, the honor has to go to Iowa. They have good solid backs and the best QB of the rest.

SpartyOn78 on 6/30/2014 @ 10:21pm EDT Said:

You Neb fans do realize this is for offensive backfield which includes the QB right? Neb’s QB’s are turnover machines….

Jack on 6/30/2014 @ 10:23pm EDT Said:

Its official the Big 10 analyst have completely lost their minds. Nebraska should be a clear #1 as they are deep and fast. Wisconsin should be a close second and Ohio State 3rd. Tom’s an idiot

Tim on 6/30/2014 @ 10:24pm EDT Said:

Go Hawks! Kirk and I are smilin ear to rear. Should be closer to #1. Gonna be a stellar year. Penn State? Really?

JP on 7/1/2014 @ 10:09am EDT Said:

Including QB’s in this completely skews this list. Nebraska and Wisconsin return the top 2 rushers in the entire country. 1a and 1b either way you list them. The rest of the list starts from there. Also, Penn St guy is off his rocker with the Zwinak as best power back and Belton as best receiving back. I’ll go ahead and take Gurley ahead of Zwinak and take the NFL’s word when they listed Abdullah as the #1 receiving RB in the country.

Josh on 7/1/2014 @ 12:37pm EDT Said:

Most of these QB/RB duos are darn good, but only one beat an SEC defense in last year’s post season… Nuff said. GBR

Mark Rogers on 7/1/2014 @ 3:12pm EDT Said:

Like to rankings Tom. Hate to see SEC banter on here…”only one beat an SEC defense.” Only two lost to an SEC defense. Also, games are played by complete teams and not backfield. Actually, the best backfield performance vs the SEC (Wisconsin) tore a Top 5 USC defense to shreds, but still lost the game

Greg White (@Boomer64gaw) on 7/7/2014 @ 9:39pm EDT Said:

Career OL Starts Returning..

3. Indiana: 130 career starts
4. Minnesota: 129
19. Northwestern: 100
22. Rutgers: 99
23. Illinois: 96
46. Wisconsin: 74
66. Iowa: 62
T-68. Maryland: 61
T-68: Michigan State: 61
107. Michigan: 37
116. Nebraska: 32
117. Purdue: 31
126. Ohio State: 21
127. Penn State: 20

Gurndogg on 7/8/2014 @ 12:42pm EDT Said:

With PSU’s bad OL & no clear WR’s I think thats to high even tho C.H is a really good QB I don’t think he gets alot help which hurts him this year. I think MSU is pure no.# 1 with their QB & RB. I’m not bying Wis. & NEB being to high cause the QB’s need to show more to take the pressure off the RB’s. I think the fan above is way wrong Miller of OSU is by far a QB &
will not run as much this year OSU can’t afford or need him getting hurt or it will hurt them bad.

Gavin on 7/8/2014 @ 10:17pm EDT Said:

Being a Maryland fan, and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of our team, I think we will surprise a lot of teams in the Big 10 this year with the speed we have in QB and backs (also wide receivers are really solid and we have a bunch of top talent with speed). CJ has a lot o experience at QB and can run with the best of them and has really come a long way with the passing game (went to the Manning QB camp last year). Keep in mind, Diggs and Long will keep any team’s defense from playing 7-8 in the box. Wes Brown is a quick power back and Ross and Reid like to hit the holes hard. Maryland had a hard 1st 2- years with Randy, as the new coach, but Maryland has recruited well and building a solid team with experience and depth. We lost a lot of close games those 1st 2-years and Randy had a lot of injuries during those 2 years. Last year Maryland should have done better, but Maryland lost both 5-star wide receivers in the same game at Wake Forest (which was early in the season and ACC schools seemed to target certain Maryland players). If Maryland can get their defense to play solid, and healthy, Maryland could have a great year!

Nick on 7/17/2014 @ 11:57am EDT Said:

I think MSU should be number 1 in this group. They have the 3rd best qb in the big ten (miller and hackenburg) and the 3rd best running back (Abdullah and Gordon). Penn State has the number 2 qb, but the 5th or 6th best rb (abdullah, gordon, langford, coleman, cobb)