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2020 Big Ten Spring Football Position Rankings: Running Backs

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If this season happens, who totes the rock?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

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run the ball
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But who’s going to be running it? Last year, two B1G RB’s separated themselves from the rest of the conference, but Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins will not return in 2020. Fortunately, the OTE team is here to guide you through these uncertain times by telling you what to expect from this upcoming season...should it happen.

Unlike my colleague LPW, I’m going to make you confront the ugly reality of life at the bottom before showing you the luxuries of the top 1% of the conference. Here’s a countdown of the best RB rooms in the Big Ten!

14: Rutgers Scarlet Knights: The Crowded Backfield

Lead Back: Isaih Pacheco
Key Rotation Pieces: Aaron Young

After a tumultuous 2019, Raheem Blackshear departed for Virginia Tech, and promising then-sophomore Pacheco briefly flirted with the transfer portal. However, he decided to return for the first year of the Greg Schiano era and is clearly the top back on the roster. He managed over 800 yards in Rutgers’ anemic offense last year despite not getting starts until Blackshear took his redshirt four games in. Sophomore Aaron Young is the other name to know in this group.

13: Maryland Terrapins: Nothing Proven

Names To Know: Tayon Fleet-Davis, Jake Funk

I personally thought Rutgers deserved the 13 spot over Maryland because I can definitely tell you who’s going to get the bulk of the carries for The ‘Gers. The Terps, on the other hand, lost Anthony McFarland, Javon Leake and Lorenzo Harrison from last year’s squad, leeving only Fleet-Davis and Funk as possible options. Mike Locksley has his work cut out for him.

12: Northwestern Wildcats: Unpredictable At Last

Lead Backs: Isaiah Bowser, Drake Anderson

Everyone sort of forgot about Isaiah Bowser after his injury last year, but he’ll be back with a vengeance after an impressive 2018 freshman campaign. Legacy Drake Anderson will join him in the backfield, but we don’t know how they’ll produce because...we’ve never seen the new-look Northwestern offense on the field!

These are, in theory, two adequately talented backs. Let’s see how they get used.

11: Michigan State Spartans: 3 Yards And A Cloud Of Rust

Lead Back: Elijah Collins
Rotation: Anthony Williams Jr, Connor Heyward, Brandon Wright

Collins came up 12 yards short of 1,000 last year and was one of only four backs to rack up over 200 carries. He’ll enter his junior year as the cornerstone of whatever offense Mel Tucker is going to run, since the Spartans wouldn’t be prepared to air it out even if he wanted to. The rotation behind him is made up of several role players who have seen sparing carries. Collins proves that you don’t have to be especially effective to be a “bell cow back.”

10: Purdue Boilermakers: Store Brand Mostert

Lead Back: King Doerue
Rotation: Alexander Horvath

Notwithstanding the possibility of incoming 4-star Tirek Murphy starting, Purdue has an adequate rotation if Fuller returns.Edit: Tario Fuller will not return Horvath and Doerue contributed around 400 rush yards and 150 receiving yards a piece, with Doerue being more explosive. Whether Murphy plays will depend on just how many stops Jeff Brohm feels he needs to pull out to regain the momentum he built in his first two years.

9: Illinois Fighting Illini: Epstein Didn’t Injure Himself

Lead Back: Mike Epstein
Rotation: Ra’von Bonner, Chase Brown, Reggie Love

Illinois lost nearly 1400 scrimmage yards with Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown departing, but the offensive line will remain largely unchanged. This could be a good opportunity for unheralded backs to shine. Redshirt junior Mike Epstein has been the most effective of the bunch, but he has yet to complete a full season due to ongoing foot issues and I believe he requires a lot of what the NBA calls “load management” to be most effective. Western Michigan transfer Chase Brown and senior Ra’Von Bonner are in line to get the bulk of the remaining carries, but incoming freshman Reggie Love enters with the best pedigree for an Illini RB recruit since Ke’Shaun Vaughn. I suspect you’ll see a lot of rotation here.

8: Iowa Hawkeyes: Sarge & Son

Lead Backs: Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent

By the end of the year, Kirk Ferentz had figured out this 1-2 punch, with Goodson and Sargent combining for 1500 scrimmage yards and 9 touchdowns. This is the only position group on offense that retains virtually all of its production; the success of this duo will depend on how the offensive line executes the stretch play. Kirk Ferentz is not in a contract year and just won 10 games, so I’m not too high on that.

7: Nebraska Cornhuskers: One and a Half Backs

Lead Back: Dedrick Mills
Rotation: Wan’dale Robinson, Sevion Morrison, Rahmir Johnson, Wyatt Mazour

I’m counting Wan’dale Robinson as half a back. He carried the ball 88 times last year and is probably going to be top-3 in carries this year, behind Adrian Martinez and Dedrick Mills.

Mills managed 5.2 yards per carry, but of course quarterback Martinez accounted for a substantial portion of the Huskers’ rushing output last year. Johnson and Mazour are deeper rotation pieces, while Morrison is a 4 star incoming freshman that could work his way on to the field.

None of these guys have been known to play defense. There’s no D in Nebraska.

6: Wisconsin Badgers: (Insert Lead Back Here)

Lead Back: Nakia Watson
Rotation: This is Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is this high in the list solely for this reason: until there is evidence to the contrary, you must assume that whoever the Badgers rush behind their O line is going to have success. Who’s going to replace Jonathan Taylor? The same person that replaced Melvin Gordon, James White, Montee Ball, etc. That person is: the next guy.

In this case, it’s Nakia Watson, a redshirt sophomore out of Texas who got 77 carries behind Taylor last year. Garrett Groshek will back him up, especially on passing downs, and Menominee Falls native Julius Davis is likely to work his way into the rotation as well, but Nakia Watson is poised to be the next Wisconsin Guy.

5: Michigan Wolverines: Doing Less With More

Lead Back: Zack Charbonnet
Rotation: Hassan Haskins, Chris Evans, Blake Corum

On paper, Michigan has a stacked backfield. Charbonnet was solid as a freshman, if not quite the game-breaker he was hyped up to be. Hassan Haskins came out of obscurity to be a good complement to Charbonnet as they rolled up over 1400 scrimmage yards. Add in the return of decorated veteran Chris Evans and there’s three backs who have a history of producing for Michigan, albeit unspectacularly.

Incoming freshman Blake Corum has already impressed Jim Harbaugh and I believe he’ll find some carries as well. Michigan will lead you to believe they’re finally open to the idea of a pass-first offense, but by opening kickoff they’ll be back to ground’n’pound.

4: Indiana Hoosiers: Stevie’s Wonderful

Lead Back: Stevie Scott
Rotation: Sampson James, Ronnie Walker Jr

Stevie Scott wrapped up his sophomore year with his second season over 1,000 scrimmage yards, but the do-everything back doesn’t have to do everything! James and Walker are capable complements, and earlier this month James withdrew his name from the transfer portal. This running game is all about Stevie Scott, though. The last time Indiana won 8 games in consecutive seasons, they were led by a back who took the college football world by storm as an upperclassman. A fully healthy Scott is not quite Anthony Thompson, but is more than capable of making #32 proud.

3: Penn State Nittany Lions: The Megazord

Lead backs: Noah Cain, Journey Brown, Devyn Ford

With Ricky Slade in the transfer portal, the Loins are down to just two top-100 backs in Cain and Ford. Nevertheless, Journey Brown is poised to be the lead back of this bunch, as he racked up the most carries for Penn State last year. All three of them had over 5 yards per carry in 2019, but Brown led all with 6.9 and 12 touchdowns. Of course, the only trend more recent than the transfer portal is the transfer portal fake-out. Slade has yet to announce a destination, so perhaps he could also form part of the Megazord still. If not, true freshman Caziah Holmes will fill in.

2: Minnesota Golden Gophers: Mo The Boat

Lead back: Mohammed Ibrahim
Rotation: Bryce Williams, Cam Wiley, Treyson Potts

Ibrahim emerged after injuries took down Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in 2018 and rolled up 1160 yards on 202 carries. With the backfield well-stocked last year, his carries fell to 114, but in 2020 he is the undisputed lead back and will easily clear 200 attempts. His health will be a big factor in determining how far Minnesota will go, because there’s nothing proven behind him. Remember, though, this was also the case in 2018, when Mo was one of the unproven quantities.

1: Ohio State Buckeyes: Tailback Voltron

Lead Back: Master Teague III
Rotation: Trey Sermon, Demario McCall, Marcus Crowley

Penn State is only the Megazord because the Megazord is a poor man’s Voltron.

Master Teague put up 789 yards last year despite the presence of a 302-carry, 2003 yard rusher in J.K. Dobbins. Teague was 7th in the Big Ten in rushing last year. Only three backs on this list gained more rush yards than him last year, and that was with him getting 135 carries. Marcus Crowley and Demario McCall also had carries last year, putting up 9.5 and 6.8 yards per carry (with admittedly small sample sizes).

But THEN, Ohio State added Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon to the mix. Sermon’s torn ACL early last year was a big blow to the Sooners, as he was part of a formidable 1-2 punch with Kennedy Brooks that had combined for over 2,000 rushing yards in 2018. In 2 years and change at OU, Sermon had 2,076 rush yards, 25 total touchdowns and 36 receptions for 391 yards. Now, granted, ACL injuries can be tricky and uncertain recoveries, but this is Ohio State, so he will probably come out of this substantially better than he ever was.

In case there are any doubts as to whether or not the rest of us are in the same league as Ohio State, they have secured the commitment of the nation’s #1 back for the 2021 class in TreyVeon Henderson, a top-20 overall player. This is beginning to feel like the late stages of a Monopoly game.