In our Big Ten Breakdown series, we will examine the best five players in the conference at each position. We begin this series with a look at the running backs across the Big Ten.
There isn’t a ton of star power at the position, as four of the conference’s top six rushers from last season have departed. But there are plenty of talented players waiting in the wings for their opportunity in the spotlight.
Here’s a look at the Big Ten’s five best running backs entering the 2016 campaign:
Markell Jones, sophomore, Purdue
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, sophomore, Illinois
Robert Martin, junior, Rutgers
De’Veon Smith, senior, Michigan
Shannon Brooks, sophomore, Minnesota
5. Corey Clement, senior, Wisconsin
Clement likely holds the keys to the Badgers offense in what could be a redemption season for the senior tailback. Clement flopped in 2015 after garnering a ton of preseason hype. He played in just four games last season because of a sports hernia injury and a one-game suspension and rushed for only 221 yards and five touchdowns.
There’s no doubt Clement is talented. He ran for 929 yards as Melvin Gordon’s backup in 2014, which indicated a tremendous 2015 season was on the horizon. With an experienced offensive line returning, Clement should see much better numbers if he remains healthy. There’s a good chance Clement finishes the season higher on this list.
4. LJ Scott, sophomore, Michigan State
Scott was Michigan State’s leading rusher as a freshman, compiling 699 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
The Spartans used a three-man platoon last season and the carries were spread pretty evenly among Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London. Each back had at least 100 carries and rushed for at least 500 yards last season.
Scott probably has the most talent of the trio, but his role in the offense heading into his sophomore season remains an uncertainty.
3. Devine Redding, junior, Indiana
Redding is now the bell-cow back in Indiana’s offense with Jordan Howard off to the NFL and he’s definitely deserving of the full-time role. Redding ran for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns last season while getting a small taste of what starting duties were like as Howard battled nagging injuries.
An emphatic conclusion to his sophomore season has Redding entering 2016 with an abundance of momentum. Redding ran for 130 yards against Maryland, 144 yards against Purdue and a whopping 227 yards against Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl during Indiana’s final three games of the season. Redding hadn’t run for more than 99 yards in a game last season before that incredible final stretch.
Now Redding will be the focal point of Kevin Wilson’s offense and will play a pivotal role in Indiana’s quest for consecutive bowl appearances.
2. Saquon Barkley, sophomore, Penn State
The sky is the limit for Barkley after he eclipsed the 1,000-yard milestone as a freshman and there’s no doubt he’s one of the top tailbacks in the conference entering his sophomore season.
Barkley is arguably Penn State’s top skill-position player and will be relied upon even more for a couple of reasons. First of all, Penn State is without quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who left Happy Valley as the program’s all-time leading passer. Second, new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s frantic, spread system will get Barkley more touches by sheer volume alone.
Combine those two factors with an offensive line that probably won’t be as putrid in 2016, and it all adds up to a potentially outstanding season for Barkley.
1. Justin Jackson, junior, Northwestern
Jackson might be the most underrated player in the Big Ten because of who he plays for. But make no mistake, he enters the 2016 season as the best tailback in the conference.
Jackson led the Big Ten with 312 carries and finished second with 1,418 yards. He had 333 total touches when including receptions. What’s even more impressive is that Jackson did all of this as Northwestern’s only offensive weapon. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. Quarterback Clayton Thorson was a mercurial freshman and Northwestern’s leading receiver was “super-back” Dan Vitale, who has since graduated.
Thorson should improve as a sophomore, but Northwestern’s offense will likely ride or die with Jackson. Another season with at least 300 touches could be in Jackson’s future and he could finish the season as the Big Ten’s leading rusher.