Post-spring position check: Top Big Ten running back units
With spring practices finished, schools are focusing on offseason work. And, plenty remains from Nebraska to Rutgers. Let’s take a look at which position units are in the best shape … beginning with running backs. The seven schools in the best shape, taking into account experience, productivity and depth, are …
1. Penn State. This may be one of the top collections of backs in America led by Saquon Barkley, who is a legit Heisman contender after rushing for 1,496 yards (106.9 ypg) and a league-high 18 TDs during the Nittany Lions’ run to the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl. The talent behind the junior is top-notch led by sophomores Miles Sanders (184 yards rushing) and Andre Robinson (141). Junior Mark Allen also is back as a pass-catcher.
2. Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are in good shape for a team that ran for 2,686 yards and 34 TDs in 2016. P.J. Fleck inherited two good ones in juniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith has rushed 397 times for 1,828 yards in 25 games, which ranks tied for 19th all-time in school history. Brooks has rushed 257 times for 1,359 yards in 22 games, which ranks 31st all-time in program history. The spot is bolstered by senior and former JC Kobe McCray along with sophomore Jonathan Femi-Cole, a power back, and sophomore Zachariah Knox, a Minnesota State transfer.
3. Maryland. The Terrapins have some questions in DJ Durkin’s second season, but running back isn’t one of them. The Terrapins averaged 4.9 yards, which was second in the Big Ten to only Ohio State. Maryland’s 2,594 yards ranked fourth in the conference. Maryland has talent and depth, led by junior Ty Johnson. He ran for 1,004 yards and averaged 9.1 yards per carry. Lorenzo Harrison is back after a big debut that saw him gain 633 yards rushing until he was suspended for the last four games. He is shifty. Keep an eye on sophomore Jake Funk and redshirt freshman LaDerrien Wilson, a bull. True freshmen Tayon Fleet-Davis and Javon Leake have promise.
4. Michigan State. The Spartans have plenty of weapons led by LJ Scott. There also is Madre London and Gerald Holmes. Scott finished his sophomore season with team highs of 994 yards rushing and six touchdowns. He also caught 10 passes for 147 yards. Holmes, a senior, ran for 431 yards last season. London, a junior, rushed for 120 yards. Add it up, and over the past two seasons, the Scott-Holmes-London triumvirate has combined for 3,328 yards rushing, 340 yards receiving and 36 touchdowns.
5. Northwestern. Nice options led by senior Justin Jackson, who led the Big Ten with 1,524 yards rushing (117.2 ypg). He also had 15 TDs, as Jackson looks to set many school records. He will begin 2017 with 4,129 career yards rushing with 30 TDs. Sophomore John Moten is a nice combo of power and speed. Sophomore Auston Anderson has potential, and keep a watch on redshirt freshmen Jesse Brown and Jeremy Larkin. These backs could lead the Wildcats to the Big Ten West title.
6. Iowa. Yes, LeShun Daniels is gone, but the Hawkeyes have weapons. The leader is senior Akrum Wadley, a dynamic back and the most deadly weapon on the offense. Look for the staff to find ways to get the senior into space—maybe even as a wideout. Wadley ran for 1,081 yards and 10 TDs in 2016. There are promising backups in redshirt freshmen Toks Akinribade and Toren Young. Both are physical runners cut from the classic Iowa form.
7. Ohio State. Mike Weber enjoyed a nice debut, running for 1,096 yards and nine TDs for what was the No. 1 ground attack in the Big Ten (245.2 ypg). Weber was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Sophomore Demario McCall may be poised for a breakout campaign. He looked good in the spring. Sophomore Antonio Williams is one to watch, too, along with freshman J.K. Dobbins, who impressed after enrolling early.