When it comes to the backfield, volume is out, diversity is in. Just as the spread offense and no-huddle concepts have trickled up from the college ranks to the NFL over the last decade plus, a distinctly pro concept — the tailback timeshare — is now a fixture in the Big Ten, too.
Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota liberally split the carries for their featured back at least two ways each week. Michigan spreads touches out among as many as four different options over the course of an afternoon.
Thank you, Jim Harbaugh.
So you’ve got your thunder back. Your lightning back. Your catching back. Your blocking back. Coaches cite health concerns as much as strategy as justification for reducing their runners’ wear and tear. And it’s a trend that seems to be gaining momentum as Big Ten backs are losing carries.
Among the league’s top seven rushers in 2014, six averaged at least 20 carries per contest. In 2015, that magic “20” number dipped to three out of the top seven.
Midway through this season, only one back among the league’s best seven is averaging at least 20 carries a game — the Big Ten leader in rushing yards, Northwestern junior Justin Jackson (698 on 143 attempts).
When you spread the wealth, you have to start spreading some of the glory, too. That said, here’s Land of 10’s midseason rankings of the league’s top running backs so far:
10. Terrell Newby, Nebraska
Last week: 22 carries, 102 yards, 1 rushing TD; 1 catch, 1 receiving yard
Season: 81 carries, 429 yards, 5.3 ypc, 4 rushing TDs; 9 catches, 68 receiving yards
Why he’s here: Meet the closer. Of the Los Angeles native’s 102 yards at Indiana last weekend, 49 of them came in the last 60 seconds. Against Illinois, Newby recorded 113 of his 140 yards in the fourth quarter and saw the ball on 18 of Nebraska’s last 21 plays.
9. Chris Evans, Michigan
Last week: Bye
Season: 48 carries, 400 yards, 8.3 ypc, 3 rushing TD; 4 catches, 28 receiving yards
Why he’s here: Of coach Jim Harbaugh’s four-headed tailback monster, a group that includes Evans, starter De’Veon Smith (336 rushing yards), Ty Isaac (297) and Karan Higdon (253), the freshman from Indianapolis has proven to be the most dynamic, especially on first down, where he’s averaged 7.64 yards per carry.
8. Rodney Smith, Minnesota
Last week: 18 carries, 144 yards, 2 rushing TDs; 1 catch, 10 receiving yards
Season: 111 carries, 590 yards, 5.3 ypc, 7 rushing TDs; 10 catches, 83 receiving yards
Why he’s here: Any doubts about the shifty Smith’s size (5-11, 205 pounds) were allayed in Week 1 against Oregon State, as he toted the rock 25 times for 125 yards to carry the Gophers to a 30-23 victory. The return of bruising running mate Shannon Brooks — “Bash” to Smith’s “Slash” — has given Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys the best of both worlds.
7. LeShun Daniels, Iowa
Last week: 23 carries, 150 yards, 2 rushing TDs; 0 catches
Season: 109 carries, 589 yards, 5.4 ypc, 6 rushing TDs; 4 catches, 20 receiving yards
Why he’s here: The battering-ram half of the Hawkeyes tailback duo struggled down the stretch last fall as injuries mounted. The wheels have looked fairly fresh so far: the Ohio native has picked up at least 60 rushing yards in six of his first seven contests this fall.
6. Akrum Wadley, Iowa
Last week: 15 carries, 176 yards, 1 rushing TD; 2 catches, 25 yards
Season: 80 carries, 592 yards, 7.4 ypc, 8 rushing TDs; 11 catches, 116 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD
Why he’s here: Few tailbacks shift to fifth gear in open space as quickly as Wadley, who in two years has gone from Kirk Ferentz’s doghouse to Iowa’s main home-run threat. The Hawkeyes are fifth in the Big Ten with 40 “explosion” runs of 10 yards or more, and the New Jersey native is responsible for 18 of those explosions, or almost half. Wadley’s 18 runs of 10 yards or more is two more than any other conference back.
5. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Last week: 34 carries, 188 yards, 2 rushing TDs; 4 catches, 10 receiving yards
Season: 143 carries, 698 yards, 4.9 ypc, 6 rushing TDs; 14 catches, 90 receiving yards.
Why he’s here: The hardest-working man in the Big Ten, Jackson is a high-stepping Walter Payton-esque throwback who gets stronger as the game wears on. The Illinois native leads the league in second-half carries (62) and yards (342) and four of his six rushing scores have come after halftime.
4. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
Last week: 25 carries, 164 yards, 0 rushing TDs; 1 catch, 18 receiving yards
Season: 107 carries, 483 yards, 4.5 ypc, 5 rushing TDs; 2 catches, 15 receiving yards
Why he’s here: The oft-injured senior bounced back from a tough day at Michigan to shred the Ohio State defense at a tune of 6.6 yards per carry — his highest since averaging 10.5 yards per tote against Rutgers last October.
3. Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
Last week: 12 carries, 46 yards, 0 rushing TDs; 6 catches, 58 receiving yards
Season: 62 carries, 456 yards, 7.4 ypc, 3 rushing TDs; 29 catches, 403 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs
Why he’s here: H-back? Tailback? Slot receiver? Out wide? The 5-foot-11 Samuel is Urban Meyer’s Swiss Army Knife, capable of lining up anywhere and breaking a play wide open. Samuel fits just about anywhere, but only one question remains: In Meyer’s scheme, where does he fit best?
2. Mike Weber, Ohio State
Last week: 11 carries, 46 yards, 0 rushing TDs; 0 catches
Season: 94 carries, 612 yards, 6.5 ypc, 4 rushing TDs; 6 catches, 19 receiving yards, 0 receiving TDs
Why he’s here: A 5-10 truck who runs like he’s 6-3 in the open field, the freshman from Detroit leads all Big Ten starting tailbacks in ratio of first downs per carry (32 on 94 attempts, 34 percent) and first-down conversion percentage on third downs (11 on 12 attempts, 91.7 percent).
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Last week: BYE
Season: 117 carries, 582 yards, 5.0 ypc, 8 rushing TDs; 11 catches, 143 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD, class
Why he’s here: The Big Ten’s most complete tailback found his mojo again on Oct. 8 against Maryland, scooting for 202 rushing yards on 31 carries, a new collegiate high. The sophomore is one of the few featured runners in the country who’s thrilled to see Ohio State — he ran for 194 yards on the Buckeyes last fall in Columbus. If the Lions want to pull off a massive upset this weekend, they might just need a repeat performance.