With spring practices in the rear view, we’ve reached the long, agonizing part of college football’s offseason. Instead of counting down the weekends until Week 1 of the 2017 season, let’s get prepared by breaking down the best of the Big Ten, from players to coaches to games. Up next: The running backs.
It was a great year for running backs in the Big Ten in 2016. Nine reached the 1,000-yard mark, which was the first time that’s happened since 2002. Six more yards by Michigan State’s LJ Scott and it would have been an even 10.
Six of the nine 1,000-yard guys (plus Scott) are back for 2017. There is uncertainty at quarterback for many teams, but the Big Ten should be one of the best conferences for running backs in the nation.
Here’s a look at the 10 best:
Honorable mention: Shannon Brooks, Minnesota; Kendrick Foster, Illinois; Markell Jones, Purdue
10. Demario McCall, Ohio State
2016 stats: 49 carries, 270 yards, 3 TDs
4 catches, 84 yards, 1 TD
McCall looks like the obvious choice to replace Curtis Samuel in Ohio State’s offense, though how the Buckeyes use a hybrid running back/slot back/slot receiver type of player has changed at times (as it did at Urban Meyer’s previous stops, as well).
Having a new offensive coordinator could also mean new wrinkles in the scheme. McCall has the potential to be a dynamic weapon for Ohio State. If he ends up with more carries and fewer receptions than Samuel had, it might mean the other pass catchers have had more of an impact and that would probably be a good thing after the way last season ended.
9. Leader of committee TBD, Michigan Wolverines
OK, so this is admittedly a bit of a cop out. The Wolverines are obviously going to run the ball a lot. Jim Harbaugh loves power football, and establishing the running game to set up more options for the passing attack.
But who is going to be the lead back? Will there be a lead back? De’Veon Smith had 181 carries last season, but Chris Evans, Ty Isaac and Karan Higdon each had between 72 and 88 attempts.
Those last three guys are all back. Kareem Walker could be in the rotation, as well. Evans might have the most potential and was clearly the most productive of the trio in 2016, but he had just 3 carries for 10 yards in the spring game.
It’s hard to imagine the Wolverines won’t still end up as one of the most productive rushing teams in the conference.
8. Ty Johnson, Maryland
2016 stats: 110 carries, 1,004 yards, 6 TDs
16 catches, 206 yards, 1 TD
Johnson is really, really fast.
The Terps have several interesting running backs, and offensive coordinator Walt Bell could get pretty creative trying to use them all.
Finding ways to get the ball to Johnson with room to maneuver should nonetheless remain a priority. He had a very boom-or-bust season — five games with at least 115 rushing yards and five with 23 or fewer. If the Terps find someone else to grind out some of the hard yards but maintain Johnson’s home run ability, Maryland’s offense could be very fun in 2017.
7. LJ Scott, Michigan State
2016 stats: 184 carries, 994 yards, 6 TDs
10 catches, 147 yards, 1 TD
Scott looked like a future star as a freshman in 2015. He did not take quite as large of a leap forward last season as many pundits predicted, but the team around him was also not very good.
Positive: This is his third year and there should be more certainty at quarterback. Negative: The program is kind of a mess right now, and there’s not a lot of certainty that the rest of the team will be significantly better.
6. Bradrick Shaw, Wisconsin
2016 stats: 88 carries, 457 yards, 5 TDs
1 catch, 6 yards
Corey Clement was a high-profile recruit, but Shaw could be the next overlooked prospect who becomes a star in the Badgers’ backfield. He’s likely to have a better support system around him than Scott, but he also might have more competition for carries.
Pitt transfer Chris James was a spring practice star and could usurp Shaw as the next 1,000-yard back off the Wisconsin assembly line. Or they could both do it.
5. Rodney Smith, Minnesota
2016 stats: 240 carries, 1,158 yards, 16 TDs
23 catches, 188 yards
Smith got more carries than Brooks in 2015, but was not as productive. Brooks missed three games last season and scuffled with injuries, but Smith became a workhorse for the Gophers. He had at least 17 carries in 10 of his 13 games, and 16 in one of the others.
New coach P.J. Fleck could mean changes for the distribution of wealth, but Western Michigan ran the ball 45 times per game last season, and at least 38 times per contest in each of the past three seasons. Given the quarterback and wide receiver situations at Minnesota, expect Fleck to let Smith and Brooks row the boat a lot in 2017.
4. Mike Weber, Ohio State
2016 stats: 182 carries, 1,096 yards, 9 TDs
23 catches, 91 yards
Beyond another reminder of Ohio State’s pea-shooter passing game last season, Weber had a strong first season as the go-to back. He averaged more yards per carry than Carlos Hyde did as a freshman or sophomore.
Assuming the passing game can help loosen up defenses a little, Weber could easily finish two or even three spots higher on this list. McCall, or one of the other blue-chip prospects in the running backs meeting room, could prevent Weber from really racking up huge numbers, though.
3. Akrum Wadley, Iowa
2016 stats: 168 carries, 1,081 yards, 10 TDs
36 catches, 315 yards, 3 TDs
There have definitely been times when it felt like Wadley was playing the Darnell Jefferson role to Leshun Daniels’ Ray Griffen. Wadley averaged more yards per carry than Daniels for three seasons.
Daniels continued to get more work, but Wadley was the workhorse in an upset win against Michigan and then in the Outback Bowl against Florida. He had a total of 45 carries for 230 yards in those two games.
There never was a sequel to “The Program,” unfortunately. So let’s just assume it involved Jefferson running for like 1,500 yards with Griffen no longer around to siphon off carries and a new quarterback to replace Joe Kane. Also, the Timberwolves probably end up on probation and Halle Berry wasn’t coming back for a sequel so there would be some early reference to Autumn attending law school in California.
Regardless, Wadley could have that type of season for the Hawkeyes in 2017 with Daniels gone and a replacement needed for C.J. Beathard.
2. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
2016 stats: 298 carries, 1,524 yards, 15 TDs
35 catches, 219 yards
Jackson has 4,129 rushing yards in three seasons. Let’s say Northwestern has a great season and wins the Big Ten West. It’s not really that crazy. The Wildcats will probably be picked second or third in some preseason magazines.
If that happens, Jackson could have 14 games to play. And for that to happen, it probably means that Jackson would need to have a monster season. That’s all a setup to say this: Jackson needs 2,277 rushing yards to become the NCAA’s all-time leader.
Four guys have rushed for at least that, and Alabama’s Derrick Henry nearly made it five in 2015. It’s a little crazy, but also doable.
Jackson needs 1,897 to move into the top five in NCAA history. That’s a little more doable, especially if the Wildcats lean on him a little more with Austin Carr no longer around to catch a bunch of passes every game.
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
2016 stats: 272 carries, 1,496 yards, 18 TDs
28 catches, 402 yards, 4 TDs
Barkley is 12th in program history with 2,572 rushing yards. The first player he will pass in 2017 is John Cappelletti, and that probably won’t be the last time those two names are linked during the season.
Cappelletti is the lone Heisman Trophy winner from Penn State. Barkley needs 1,361 yards to pass Evan Royster for the career record, and there will be plenty of other marks to pass, as well.
Several other running backs have had fantastic seasons for Penn State since Cappelletti won the Heisman, but Barkley has the ability to be better than all of them.