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The 2019 Big Ten Position Breakdowns: Running Backs

Come “enjoy” a discussion of the Big Ten’s second-most important position

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If you’re a B1G or Big Ten or Big1T1en football team, you need to excel at three things: punting, running the ball, and rarely winning anything of consequence. The first will be discussed on everyone’s favorite positional ranking day, the third will rarely, if ever, be discussed, and the second will be discussed right now!

Here’s how the writers “writers” complete clowns, okay “writers” ranked the 2019 lineup of Big Ten running backs:

  1. JK Dobbins
  2. Jonathan Taylor
  3. Stevie Scott
  4. Rodney Smith
  5. Chris Evans
  6. Isaiah Bowser
  7. Ricky Slade
  8. Reggie Corbin
  9. Raheem Blackshear
  10. Mekhi Sargent
  11. Anthony McFarland
  12. Tario Fuller
  13. Shannon Brooks
  14. Connor Heyward

Got them memorized? Good, because we’re going to talk about this list and these players a bit more, starting with a discussion of the player who, without a doubt, indisputably, statistically, logically, and emotionally is the best running back in the Big Ten.

Jonathan Taylor - Wisconsin Badgers

Jonathan Taylor was the best running back in the Big Ten in 2018, and it wasn’t close. He was the best running back in the country last season, and if it was closer, it was only by the slightest of margins.

2018: 2,194 yards, 7.2 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns; Big Ten running back of the year; First Team National All American; Doak Walker winner.

Taylor had the most yards in the country last year, with more than 10% (285 yards) more than the second-most prolific rusher. “Sure, but he also ran it 307 times!” you, shockingly wisely, say. To which I respond, fedora in hand, “Of course, but his yards per carry was 9th best in the country as well!” Once the amazement fades from your face, you hand me $100, say “Wow, I can’t believe how good he was, you’re right! Here’s $100,” and fade into the background.

How is this going to translate to 2019? TBD, but I’m bullish. His offensive line is going to be worse than last year, but Taylor leads the universe in breaking tackles and yards after contact (see, e.g., 7.2 ypc average). Net, both his yards and yards per carry likely take a small hit, heavily dependent on how a newish line performs. Will he face as many 8-man fronts in 2019? Probably not? Hopefully not? I’m not sure. Wisconsin’s QB “battle” looks to be interesting, but smart money is on Coan being the starter this season, because if you’ve ever watched a Paul Chryst press conference or looked at Wisconsin’s near-uniformity of run-run-pass on every offensive possession, you know Chryst yearns to do the most boring thing. If Wisconsin’s passing game is even marginally better, Taylor should see “easier” fronts to run against, maybe bumping up his ypc even as his usage goes down. But again, run-run-pass is all Wisconsin ever does, so....

Taylor won’t have as good of a season in 2019, but it’ll still be the best in the conference. If it’s not, I’ll be right here, eating my words making excuses.

J.K. Dobbins - Ohio State Buckeyes

JK Dobbins had a decent 2018, even though he had to split time with Mike Weber. Dobbins rushed for 1,033 yards and 10 TDs with a 4.6 ypc average. Ohio State rightly cared far more about pass blocking and throwing the ball in 2018, with former Maryland recruit Dwayne Haskins breaking every B1G passing record worth having, and, as OTE writer GoForThree put it, OSU passing “on nearly every running down.” As a fan who roots for an exclusively run-run-pass team, that sounds interesting!

Other interesting things about Dobbins for 2019 can be found both on and off the field. Every OTE writer except me, Beez, and my fellow not-idiot and my brother-in-being-right MC ClapYoHandz voted for Dobbins as the best Big Ten running back heading into 2019.

Dobbins is absolutely an electric player, and he’ll benefit greatly from (a) Weber graduating, (b) Haskins declaring for the draft, (c) a head coach who doesn’t think a “good” running play means “here, go out toward the sideline and then, shit I don’t know, just beat the defenders who are standing out there,” and most importantly, (d) a QB who hands the ball off good as fuck. Dobbins will be THE GUY running the ball this season, and OSU likely will revert to a more traditional, B1G-encouraged ratio of running the ball more than passing the ball. (Per GoForThree, last year was the first time in OSU history that OSU threw more than it ran.)

Stevie Scott - Indiana Hoosiers

This one sorta surprised me at first, but Stevie Scott had a good year in 2018, particularly so as a freshman. He rushed for 1,137 yards (4th in the conference) at 5.0 ypc with 10 TDs, and he carried Indiana’s offense at times. More importantly, he won multiple OTE Freshman of the Week awards and/or honorable mentions.

It’ll be interesting to see if he can build on his 2018 season, and I hope he can. I worry that his ceiling is limited by his team. Indiana doesn’t win a lot and thus doesn’t lead all that often. Unless Scott is getting carries late in second halves to salt games away, even a guy who gets 5 ypc is going to have a hard time getting near 1,500 yards. The good news is I don’t follow Indiana developments at all so my relentless optimism tells me he’ll easily rush for more yards in 2019 than he did in 2018.

Rodney Smith (and friends) - Minnesota Golden Gophers

Rodney Smith, and the entire Minnesota non-QB backfield, is an interesting proposition for 2019. Smith, if you’ll recall (or not because it’s Minnesota football lol), played one good game to open Minnesota’s season (157, 6.3 ypc) and then stepped on a pile of jacks or something on the third play of his second game—out for the season. In the two prior years, though, Smith was a pretty decent running back: 2,135 yards, 4.6 ypc, 19 TDs across 2016/17. He’s healthy again, hopefully he’ll stay that way, and he’s a good pick to generate a bunch of yards as PJ Fleck tries to avoid having to use his QBs for anything.

Beyond Smith, though, Minnesota features some good depth in the form of 34-year-old Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim. Like Smith, Brooks had one excellent game in 2018 (154, 7.0 ypc) before tripping over a bunch of Legos (Legoes?) someone left laying around. Brooks had been a solid, reliable backup way back in 2015 and 2016, and he’ll be there again this year.

With Brooks (who was on a 4-games-and-done limit anyway) and Smith out, Ibrahim stepped in and, in just ten games, had one of the top 5 seasons of anyone in the B1G last year. Shockingly (to me), per WhiteSpeedReceiver, Ibrahim is and will remain solidly third string in a healthy Minnesota backfield. Whatever the injury situation in Minnesota in 2019, they should be a-ok.

WSR weighs in:

I can’t wait to see what this RB group can do if it’s fully healthy and ready to go (which...3 of 8 are currently healthy in spring practice, but anyway). Smith should be the workhourse, Brooks has the potential to be the explosive guy if his legs don’t (7.0 YPC on 22 carries in the first half against Indiana), and Ibrahim’s 1,160 yards as a freshman being relegated to 3rd string really harkens back to the days of Mason.

Chris Evans - Michigan Wolverines
Nebraska?!? - Nebraska Cornhuskers

These two are together for similar reasons: we aren’t sure what’s going to happen. OTE writers ranked Evans 5th coming into 2019, but it turns out he might not even be on the team or at Michigan anymore. An academic “mistake” resulted in Evans’s suspension, but his pending appeal is set to be decided in early May (per an article I read but can’t find now). If he “works his way back” to the team, as Harbz indicated he could, he should have a good season! If not...then he’s probably going to put up zero yards.

You surely noticed that OTE writers ranked 14 running backs, but you might have missed that none of them play for Nebraska. As with Michigan, Nebraska’s running back situation is a bit...murky. Maurice Washington is/was slated to be the starter, but he’s merely been a “limited participant” in spring practices after some of Washington’s months-long legal issues came to a head in early February. If he plays for Nebraska, he’ll probably have a good season, but right now not a single “writer” nominated or voted for him going into the 2019 season.

Reggie Corbin - Illinois Fighting Illini
Anthony McFarland - Maryland Terrapins

These guys are the gamebreaking runners. Corbin averaged 8.5 ypc last season and McFarland averaged 8.0, mostly against Ohio State in an under-the-radar insane game from last year. Will these guys continue to break big runs over and over? Will they get the chance late in games to pad their stats? If yes to both, they’ll both finish higher than where our writers ranked them. Stay tuned (if you’re an Illinois or Maryland fan, I guess)!

Mekhi Sargent - Iowa Hawkeyes
Connor Heyward - Michigan State Spartans

These guys get grouped together because they were both ranked surprisingly low, given who their head coaches are. Both Kirk Ferentz and Mark D’Antoni Dantonio love to run the ball straight at you, over and over, whether winning or losing. I can’t know for certain, but I’m confident both wake up and recite their daily devotional: May I always establish the run, control the line of scrimmage, and even if I can’t do either, keep running it straight up the middle. Thus, it’s surprising that OTE ranked them relatively and very low, respectively. My guess? It’s because they weren’t the main guys last year and they don’t play for Ohio State, so we can’t just automatically rank them highly because of the name on the front of their jerseys.

If your favorite player didn’t get discussed, it’s because I either don’t know anything about him and/or there’s nothing interesting I could think of to say. Sorry?


Most egregious ranking?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Dobbins over Taylor
    (63 votes)
  • 10%
    Evans at 5
    (16 votes)
  • 31%
    No Rondale? Clearly he’s going to lead the team in rushing this season
    (49 votes)
  • 16%
    I’m still annoyed about the disparity between the Justin Fields ranking and the Hunter Johnson ranking
    (26 votes)
154 votes total Vote Now