Saquon Barkley hurdles Illinois defender V’angelo Bentley in a game in 2015. From CBS Sports.
Two Big Ten 1,200 yard rushers (Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard) have forgone their final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Two more runners of at least 950 yards, Jordan Canzeri and Brandon Ross, have exhausted their eligibility in addition.
But for the reason of these eight rushers, 2016 will be the year of the running back in the Big Ten conference. Why eight you ask? Well, because it’s my second favorite number. No other significance. If you don’t like it you can shove it, because this is my article.
Joking aside, here are the eight backs in the Big Ten poised for a great season, in order of who I think will be the most productive.
- Markell Jones, Purdue Sophomore
This home-town product for the Boilermakers came in his freshman year and earned the role of primary runner for Purdue by his second game against Illinois, when he picked up 84 yards on just 14 carries. Averaging a high total per attempt turned out to be a theme for Jones in fact, as he gained 5.2 yards per carry in his true freshman season to finish with a total of 875 yards with ten scores on the ground.
Hindering Jones’ efforts, however, may be a historically ineffective Purdue attack. The Boilermakers do have over 30 started games on their front line returning, but what good are starts for a squad that ranked 109th last season in rushing offense with only 131.3 yards per game, and 95th in total offense with 368.6 yards a game? There was a reason the Boilers went 2-10 last year and haven’t won more than three games in a season since 2012.
- De’Veon Smith, Michigan Senior
In his second year in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines revamped and poised for another 10+ win season. It would be the first time they have had back-to-back double digits in the win column since 2002 and 2003.
A big reason for the position they sit in is their returning rushing leader, De’Veon Smith. The fit of a downhill and through-contact runner like Smith in Harbaugh’s pro-style offense is glove-like, and while his production as a junior was gaining just 4.2 yards a carry to total 753 yards, he’s got the work ethic to break free this final season.
Mlive.com quoted Jim Harbaugh as saying, “De’Veon Smith is the clearcut starting tailback. But he’s the first one in there no matter what drill we’re doing. If it’s a live drill, he doesn’t shy away. If we’re tackling, he’s in there.”
- Devine Redding, Indiana Junior
Indiana has had 1,200-yard rushers in back-to-back seasons now, a rare bright spot in the otherwise gloomy combined 12-15 past two years there. Devine Redding will look to continue that trend, coming off a season of over 1,000 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. The only thing that could subtract from Redding’s numbers is fellow junior Camion Patrick, who was described as the best player on the team by Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson. But after sitting in the shadow of Tevin Coleman and then Jordan Howard, I look for Redding to win the starting role for the Hoosiers and make it three straight years for Indiana with a 1,200 yard back.
- L.J. Scott, Michigan State Sophomore
As a talented freshman from Ohio, L.J. Scott was a rare first-year contributor in a back-by-committee system last year for the Spartans that also included fellow freshman Madre London and sophomore Gerald Holmes. Those other two also return for 2016, but L.J. has the talent and heart to excel above to the featured back role on a team coming off three straight eleven win seasons and Big Ten titles in both 2013 and 2015. It’s not for nothing that Ohio State and Alabama also offered him coming out of high school.
I would not be surprised at all to see L.J. double the 699 yards he gained last year. From the things I’ve read, he’s that good.
- Corey Clement, Wisconsin Senior
Wisconsin is known for big offensive lines and top running backs in recent history; backs like Melvin Gordon III, Montee Ball and John Clay.
This year is no exception on the big offensive line part, as the average projected Badger in the trenches is 305 pounds, including two big men over 315. Clement, who ran for over 900 yards behind Melvin Gordon in 2014, was poised last year to take on the role as the next great Wisconsin running back. But an injury in 2015 left him only four games played, and Wisconsin’s converted cornerback Dare Ogunbowale would have to take over.
Now back from surgery to repair a sports hernia, Clement is ready to enjoy the success he was supposed to have last year when he was a preseason Heisman trophy candidate.
- Justin Jackson, Northwestern Junior
Justin Jackson is the most productive Big Ten back returning from last year, with 1,418 yards
It’s not often that Northwestern reels in a four-star recruit. That’s probably why Jackson was a day one starter in 2014. Now in 2016, he will again be the featured back for a team that quietly went 10-3 and finished 23rd in the AP poll last year.
Of course, it took him 312 carries to get the yards he got (4.5 yards a carry) and with only five touchdowns, he wasn’t racking up many points. However, he’s a quick-footed runner who will look to improve on his totals from last year, which would mean 1,500 yards.
- Mike Weber, Ohio State Freshman (RS)
This prediction is a little more bold, but I think the running back rumored to be Carlos Hyde 2.0 down in Columbus could bust out a huge season this year. He’s got a line composed of almost entirely former four stars in front of him, and the buckeyes have been a top 11 rushing offense each of Urban Meyer’s four years coaching.
Weber received rave reviews coming out of fall camp last year. In fact, the only thing that kept him from being Ezekiel Elliott’s back-up as a true freshman was a torn meniscus, and after the time he missed the coaching staff decided to redshirt him.
- Saquon Barkley, Penn State Sophomore
Barkley defines the phrase “freak of nature.” Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell said he was better than Derrick Henry, and Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin said of him that “He’s pretty rare, pretty special. I haven’t been around too many guys like him.”
Coming off a season where he made the freshman All-american team with 1,076 yards rushing, Barkley will go as far this year as his offensive line will take him. An offensive line that has had problems staying healthy the past couple of seasons. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will look to revamp the scheme and try to improve play up front, and a new detail-focused approach to a unit that allowed 3.0 sacks per game last year — tied for 111th worst in the country.