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2021 Spring Previews: Running Backs

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NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Off Tackle Empire’s position-by-position thumbnail series as we gear up for B1G 2021.

Being more of an audio contributor these days, whenever I’m obligated to hammer away at the ol’ typin’ machine for one of these series, you’d better believe I’m taking the low-hanging fruit. What better plum piece to snag than a counting-stat smooth brain’s bonanza, the running back?

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

After a sometimes-underwhelming regular season, Trey Sermon parlayed a late-season hot streak into an NFL departure. Master Teague III, somehow a forgotten man in the press despite his fantastic name, went for nearly 5 YPC in split duty last year, but don’t assume he’s set for a dominant role now.

Uber-croot TreVeyon Henderson is sigh reportedly looking incredible and is likely to contribute immediately. Further down the depth chart, Steele Chambers and Miyan Williams are probably slated for relief roles.

T-2. Minnesota Golden Gophers

After a dynamite redshirt sophomore season that lost national interest as the Gophers floundered around him, Mohamed Ibrahim passed on the NFL draft in an iffy tailback class to return as the rock of Minnesota’s offense. Even in a 7-game schedule, Ibrahim piled up 202 carries last year, and will plainly be the workhorse again behind a deep, proven offensive line. Complement Treyson Potts looked decent in his limited run, and you’ll probably see Cam Wiley and Bryce Williams in mop-up time.

T-2. Penn State Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions have one of those situations where, a year after injuries forced young players into big roles, they are now poised to reap the benefits of that trial by fire with a deep, young, experienced group of backs. Then-freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes both looked pretty good collaborating with Devyn Ford. With Journey Brown’s medical retirement, the picture doesn’t figure to change very much.

4. Indiana Hoosiers

I admit to some confusion with the electorate’s decision here. Although Indiana gained something of a reputation as a versatile offense last year able to grind out tough yards via Stevie Scott’s inside running, the stats actually portray a fairly limited rushing game. Now that Scott is gone, there are a few options to split his carries in Sampson James, Tim Baldwin, and David Ellis.

5. Michigan Wolverines

Despite some decent individual efforts last season, Michigan’s run game was frequently stymied by the offense’s overall struggles. With Chris Evans graduating and Zach Charbonnet into the portal, the pecking order should at least be clearer here, with Hassan Haskins leading the way, lightning bug/receiving threat Blake Corum mixing in, and some undetermined role for touted freshman Donovan Edwards. Personally, I think they’re nuts to not give Haskins 20 carries a game and then divvy up whatever’s left after that.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes

As with their northern neighbors, Iowa’s run game is headlined by a star in Tyler Goodson, albeit with a playcaller that sometimes sent him to the bench at important times. His top backup Mekhi Sargent is not returning, so Ivory Kelly-Martin figures to step back into the #2 spot.

7. Purdue Boilermakers

The Boilermakers were a one-man show on the ground last season, as former walk-on Zander Horvath took 89 of the team’s 150 total rushing attempts for a clean 5.0 YPC. King Doerue was the primary complement, but as Horvath was also a capable threat in the passing game, diversifying this position is probably pretty far down the list of Jeff Brohm’s offseason priorities.

8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

The Scarlet Knights’ reworked offense in Year 1 under Greg Schiano pieced together a marginally-improved run game, but overall, it was still an offense handcuffed by a lack of passing game potency. Still, Rutgers’ guys on the ground at least look the part from time to time, particularly lead back Isaih Pacheco. Kay’Ron Adams jumped into the picture last year, vaulting Aaron Young for the backup role.

9. Illinois Fighting Illini

The exact nature of Bret Bielema’s offense in Champaign has yet to be revealed, but given his history, it’s fair to say it will lean heavily on the run game. With that in mind, having a seasoned combo in Mike Epstein and Chase Brown in the running back room is a good place to start. Newcomers Chase Hayden (Arkansas) and Reggie Love will give this group some real depth.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

Despite fielding a typically-stout offensive line and a flashy new QB in Graham Mertz, Wisconsin had one of its least-effective recent-vintage rushing attacks in 2020. After three straight years of averaging 5.0 or more YPC on Jonathan Taylor’s shoulders, the Badgers dipped below 4 YPC last year with a committee of Jalen Berger, Garrett Groshek, and Nakia Watson. Groshek and his pass-catching ability moved on, leaving Berger and Watson to get Wisconsin’s ground game back on track.

11. Maryland Terrapins

Mike Locksley’s offense got a pleasant surprise in Jake Funk last year, as the oft-injured veteran was consistent and explosive in place of Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake. With Funk now taking his own NFL shot, Maryland again needs new blood carrying the rock. Tayon Fleet-Davis and Peny Boone look like the frontrunners here.

12. Michigan State Spartans

Despite returning the top-producing running back from the 2019 season last year in Eli Collins, Michigan State’s new offensive staff did not lean on or even use Collins much, instead rotating him with Connor Heyward and Jordon Simmons, all of whom return. To muddy things even further, high-level transfers Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest) and Harold Joiner (Auburn) are now in the picture as well. There’s no telling how the rotation here works out, but if the offensive line doesn’t break a half-decade string of awful run blocking, it won’t matter much.

13. Northwestern Wildcats

This is now the third consecutive offseason in which you could look at the previous season’s results for Northwestern and think they definitely have a workhorse to rely upon. The problem is, the previous two guys, between injury and ineffectiveness, are now gone (Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson both transferred). That leaves Cam Porter as the presumptive lead back here, though Evan Hull showed some pop in limited playing time enough to justify a share of the carries.

14. Nebraska Cornhuskers

For all their offensive struggles last season, Nebraska’s run game was productive - but with some caveats, as a large chunk of that came from their quarterbacks carrying the ball in high volumes despite having more-explosive tailbacks in Dedrick Mills and WanDale Robinson. Now that Mills and Robinson are gone, there’s a gaggle of untested-but-promising options: Marvin Scott III, Ronald Thompkins, Rahmir Johnson, and USC transfer Markese Stepp will all try to make their case to Scott Frost’s offensive staff this spring.

Poll

K, Ohio State’s the best. But who’s next?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Minnesota
    (71 votes)
  • 22%
    Penn State
    (41 votes)
  • 3%
    Indiana
    (7 votes)
  • 4%
    Michigan
    (8 votes)
  • 11%
    Iowa
    (21 votes)
  • 17%
    Someone else
    (32 votes)
180 votes total Vote Now