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2018 B1G Positional Previews: Running Backs

Warm up your turbo buttons, folks. We’re calling HB Dives today.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
The spinner said left hand green.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the first thing you think of when you think B1G football? Punting, obviously, but we’re not about to blow our proverbial wad on the first previews. Armpunts are probably next, but even before a coach turns to that page of the playbook they trust in one thing: handing the ball off to the one fast guy he recruited and hoping it bides some time until it’s time for Dad to pass out the orange slices. In this conference that strategy isn’t half bad, though, because B1G rosters from the top to the bottom are really talented at running away from potential grass hugs.

So without further ado let’s look at the best running backs this proud conference has to offer for 2018. Quick note, these previews aren’t always guaranteed to offer more than a Top 5, but I want to add some extra notables here for a few reasons. First, more opportunities to make someone mad on the Internet, which is always a plus. Second, the B1G is pretty stacked at RB next season, so even the guys that we (totally objectively) have below #5 are worth watching. Third, I look busy when I type this, and that’s really all being an adult is about. Keep up with those 401(k) contributions folks, we’ll get through this.

#1 J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State

2017 Stats: 1,403 yards, 7.2 YPC, 7 TDs

You might expect a returning Doak Walker finalist and 2nd team All-American to claim this throne, but alas, Dobbins gets the nod in a heated race for #1. Racking up the most freshman yardage at OSU since Maurice Clarett, there’s a lot to love about Dobbins: his impressive vision, his quick burst of speed, his impish exclamations of his own first name on play action. He’s an electrifying playmaker that’s poised to become even more of the focal point in Ohio State’s offense.

LGHF: Dobbins is probably the best back in the league. Physically and vision-wise- sweet Jesus.

#2 Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

2017 Stats: 1,977 yards, 6.6 YPC, 13 TDs

Taylor had a monster freshman campaign in 2017, setting the NCAA record for rushing yards from a freshman and finishing sixth in Heisman voting (of those that finished above Taylor, only Bryce Love of Stanford returns in 2018). Taylor is a bowling ball of a back that keeps a low center of gravity, and yet he possesses great speed and is surprisingly agile. Look for him to improve his ball control and receiving skills in 2018.

Beezer: Jonathan Taylor fumbled eight times last year, losing six. If he can get that down to three or fewer lost, he’ll be this year’s “we need some non-QBs in the Heisman race” player. Also when you type his name into Google, it automatically adds ‘Thomas’ to the end of his name.

#3 LJ Scott, Michigan State

2017 Stats: 898 yards, 4.5 YPC, 8 TDs

Once the #6 RB recruit in the country out of high school, Scott has contributed to but not exactly dominated his three seasons with MSU. With the Spartans losing most of their experience around Scott on the depth chart though, LJ figures to see a spike in his usage and production. If MSU is to continue its reclamation climb from that hilarious 3-9 season a couple years back, Scott will be perhaps the main catalyst.

Andrew Kardashian: L.J. Scott figures to be MSU’s first, second, and third option, maybe to the same degree Le’Veon Bell was in 2012. With so much of the offense coming back around him and no proven competition behind him, there’s no excuse for him not to have a great senior season.

#4 Miles Sanders, Penn State

2017 Stats: 191 yards, 6.2 YPC, 2 TDs

Those of you finally exhaling with the departure of Saquon Barkley may want to hold that in for another year or two, because Miles Sanders has a lot of Saquon to his game. Sanders has been lightly used to this point, as Penn State did everything they could to try to manufacture a Heisman for Barkley, but with another year of Trace McSorley behind center Sanders should find plenty of opportunities to terrorize defenses.

Aaron Yorke: Once upon a time, Miles Sanders was rated more highly than Saquon Barkley. It’s impossible for his physical skills to reach the same ceiling that Barkley’s did, but Sanders should have an opportunity to become a star in his own right now that his predecessor is joining the professional ranks. In small-sample-size action over the past two seasons, Sanders averaged over six yards per carry and scored three touchdowns, so he’s the heavy favorite to be the lead back in 2018.

#5 Karan Higdon, Michigan

2017 Stats: 994 yards, 6.1 YPC, 11 TDs

First of all “Karan” looks kind of like Karen and nobody likes Karen, so cracking the top 5 in spite of that is a feat in itself. Higdon saw his usage double in 2017 and despite a lackluster Michigan offense, Higdon was able to produce north of 6 yards a clip. The Wolverines hope to have a healthier year at QB in 2018, which would help alleviate some pressure on Higdon and the run game.

Other Notables

Morgan Ellison, Indiana

2017 Stats: 704 yards, 4.9 YPC, 6 TDs

Ellison doesn’t benefit from some of the offensive lines the top 5 have and Indiana is a much more pass-heavy offense, but Ellison is pretty fun to watch. His running style has sort of a poor man’s Melvin Gordon feel to it, and if he can get himself more involved in Indiana’s passing game his impact will intensify.

Markell Jones, Purdue

2017 Stats: 566 yards, 5.0 YPC, 1 TD

Jones wasn’t featured quite as heavily as usual in the running game in Year 1 of the Brohm era, and Purdue is likely to utilize several different backs again in 2018. Jones enters spring practice as the top guy, though, and Purdue’s running game (and offense in general) made notable improvements with Brohm at the helm. If Jones can sustain his lead on the depth chart and Purdue continues its upward trajectory, Jones is poised to put up notable numbers.

Jeremy Larkin, Northwestern

2017 Stats: 503 yards, 6.0 YPC, 5 TDs

MNWildcat: Jeremy Larkin was an effective change of pace back for the now-departed Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier, and his finish this season _should_ be much higher than the credit my esteemed peers have given him.

He averaged 6 ypc and totalled 500+ yards in 2017 and has more of a burst than Jackson, though it remains to be seen if he’ll be quite as shifty out of the backfield or as reliable in the passing game. (His 25-yd TD run at Nebraska suggests he can be the former, though let’s not make huge against-the-grain cutbacks a habit, Jeremy.)

Expect a quietly solid season and lots of outside zone with Larkin. He’ll bust a couple.

What he said.

Rodney Smith, Minnesota

2017 Stats: 977 yards, 4.3 YPC, 3 TDs

WhiteSpeedReceiver: So Rodney Smith finishes 6th and 4th in rushing yards the previous 2 seasons and his reward for that is a heaping batch of DISRESPEK from my peers, huh? Makes sense.

It does indeed. 4.3 YPC isn’t exactly wowing anyone, and Minnesota will largely remain within its trash quota. #2-4 on Minnesota’s rushing production list from 2017 are either gone or injured though, and with only something called a Jonathan Femi-Cole in his way, Smith is ready to take some big time carries in his final season.

Toren Young, Iowa

2017 Stats: 193 yards, 4.3 YPC, 2 TDs

StewMonkey: Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin are likely to split carries, with Young being the bigger, bruising, back, and Kelly-Martin being more of a change of pace back. The hope is that the duo can gain about 2k yards between them.

I’m all for giving the nod to the bigger back in an old school offense. Young has some decent burst and at 220 pounds he’s capable of bringing the lumber. We’re probably also pretty close to the breakout season portion of the Ferentz Cycle, so the #1 RB is bound to play a huge role in that. It’s no contract year, but someone good is bound to get got. Watch out for Young.

Disagree? Take some time out of your day to berate strangers on the Internet.