What the Big Ten lacks in experienced – and in some instances, competent – quarterbacks, it makes up for in a deep tailback pool.
Some of the league’s best from 2012 have departed, but there are still plenty of potential stars to go around. The fun part about watching tailbacks in this league is that they come in different sizes and speeds. Some are bruisers more inclines to break safeties than 80-yard runs. Others provide electrifying plays and quickness.
Here is our countdown of the top running backs in the Big Ten:
1. James White – Wisconsin
The departure of record-setting RB Montee Ball opens the door for White to enjoy a sensational sendoff season. Despite Ball receiving the bulk of the carries for the Badgers over the past two seasons, White enters 2013 as the nation’s leader in career rushing yards (2,571). He also has scored 32 career TDs. The 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year does have a new offense to which he must adapt – and he has to keep talented fellow RB Melvin Gordon at bay on the depth chart. Still, he has all the makings of a below-radar Heisman candidate. For the last decade, Wisconsin has built its reputation around running right at defenses – even when they know it’s coming. If Gary Andersen follows the same blueprint utilized by predecessors Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema, White is likely in for a big season.
2. Venric Mark – Northwestern
The small-but-explosive Texan enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 TDs. Mark flipped the script on Northwestern’s reputation as a pass-happy offense. He ran for 100 yards in eight of 12 regular-season games, including six of eight Big Ten contests. Mark averaged 6.0 yards per carry and posted his stats despite cracking the 20-attempt threshold just four times. How much Mark can improve on his numbers from a year ago depends on offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s willingness to give him more chances. The Wildcats feature an interesting two-headed quarterback system in which Kain Colter can steal numerous carries from Mark. Still, Mark is among the most talented backs in the league.
3. Carlos Hyde – Ohio State
If touchdown machine Carlos Hyde doesn’t get enough credit, it’s only because of his extravagantly talented backfield mate, QB Braxton Miller. Hyde, who missed two games early in the season with a sprained knee, found the end-zone 16 times in 10 contests. More importantly, Hyde performed especially well against the Buckeyes’ best opponents. He went for 140 yards and 3 TDs in a big win over Nebraska, 2 TDs at Wisconsin and 146 yards and a TD against Michigan. Perhaps Hyde’s biggest challenge will be staving off a collection of talented tailbacks assembling to take advantage of Urban Meyer’s attack.
4. Ameer Abdullah – Nebraska
Even sharing the backfield with dynamic running QB Taylor Martinez and now-departed RB Rex Burkhead couldn’t keep Abdullah from topping the 1,000-yard mark a year ago. This year Burkhead’s departure means Abdullah will get more carries and can build off an impressive 2012 season. Abdullah, who finished with 1,137 yards, cracked the 100-yard mark six times a year ago. The rising junior made his mark during a four-game stretch. His strong play helped the Cornhuskers to consecutive wins over Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Abdullah rushed for at least 100 yards in each of those games.
5. Melvin Gordon – Wisconsin
How good was Gordon as a freshman? Ask Nebraska, which still has nightmares about trying to stop him in the Big Ten Championship Game. Gordon turned the conference’s biggest stage into a personal coming out party, running nine times for 216 yards and a TD. Then again, making the most of limited opportunities was the hallmark for Gordon last year. He toted the ball 62 times and went for 621 total yards for a 10.0 yards per carry average. Gordon is clearly the next in a long history of talented running backs to come through Madison. The only thing keeping Gordon from being higher on this list is having arguably the top running back (White, No. 1 on this list) in the conference ahead of him on the depth chart.
6. Zach Zwinak – Penn State
Those who had Zwinak down for a 1,000-yard season in 2012, please stand up. Now, if your last name isn’t Zwinak, please stop lying. The 6-foot-1, 232-pound bruiser was among the better stories in the Big Ten last season. He went from depth chart afterthought early in the season to featured back by Week 4. Zwinak responded by gouging opposing defenses for 100 yards in six of the Nittany Lions’ final eight contests. Penn State will likely need to rely more on Zwinak this season while trying to break in a new quarterback.
7. Mark Weisman – Iowa
Before the bottom fell out on the season for the Hawkeyes, Weisman turned himself into something of a campus legend. The converted fullback who only got his chance after injuries to the two RBs ahead of him on the depth chart, bounced off and around defenders for 623 yards and 8 TDs during a four-game stretch. However, an ankle injury during the win over Michigan State derailed his season. He did virtually all of his damage during those four games, though he managed to rush for 91 yards on 29 carries in a season-ending 13-7 loss to Nebraska. Iowa would love to see what he can do with a full, 12-game slate.
8. Donnell Kirkwood – Minnesota
Too often last year, as Kirkwood went, so went the Gophers. He posted big performances in wins over Western Michigan, Syracuse, Purdue and Illinois. The rising junior also disappeared in losses to Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State. There is no question Kirkwood has the talent and potential to improve on his promising development in 2012. He will have to play with more consistency to move up this list, though.
9. Fitz Toussaint – Michigan
The 2012 season never got on track for Toussaint, who expected to rank among the best backs in the Big Ten. Suspension and injury kept him from reaching his potential, evidenced by watching his rushing stats fall from 1,014 yards in 2011 to 514 yards in 2012. Toussaint didn’t even notch a 100-yard game last year, though he came close in an overtime win over Northwestern. Toussaint will likely get the first shot at the starting tailback position, but will get pressed hard by a couple freshmen once August practice opens.
10. Stephen Houston – Indiana
When Houston has gotten opportunities, he has largely taken advantage of them. The problem is the Hoosiers possessed the Big Ten’s leading passing game a year ago and Houston could potentially lose touches with athletic QB Tre Roberson coming back from injury. Houston has rushed for 1,551 yards through his first two seasons. Last year he saved his best performance for last, rushing for 158 yards and 3 TDs – and catching 12 passes for 95 yards – in a season-ending loss at Purdue.
11. Derrick Green – Michigan
The nation’s top RB prospect (according to Rivals) has a chance to come in and change everything in the Michigan backfield. Then again, his inexperience could also lead him to be a role player who feasts off the scraps of Toussaint (No. 9 on the list). If Green does get the nod, however, he certainly has the talent to be among the best tailbacks in the league – and might have a higher ceiling than that.
12. Akeem Hunt – Purdue
No longer will Purdue’s best home-run threat play second fiddle to a teammate. Hunt received just 42 rushes last year but still managed 335 yards and touchdown runs of 81 and 56 yards. He also had TD receptions that went for 63 and 50 yards. Durability will be a question for the smaller Hunt, though he focused on gaining weight during the offseason to help alleviate such concerns. First-year coach Darrell Hazell seems satisfied with Hunt’s spring performance and indicated a belief that the junior could be in for a big season.
13. Jordan Hall – Ohio State
If not for injuries, Hall could find his name much higher on this list. Instead, a knee injury kept Hall off the field and on the sideline. When he did get chances, Hall showed why he belongs on this list. When he replaced Hyde (No. 3 on this list), Hall rushed for 192 yards in two outings. The versatile, do-everything back has the potential to be an important component of coach Urban Meyer’s offense.
14. Donovonn Young – Illinois
At times, Young showed flashes of being an effective Big Ten back. Now he has to do so with consistency. A sophomore in 2012, Young had almost as many games with 10 or fewer carries – five – as he did games with 10-plus – seven. Young posted a 100-yard effort in a 14-point loss to Indiana. But here comes that whole “consistency” part – Western Michigan held him to 2 yards on 11 carries and hr ran for just 5 yards on four attempts against Wisconsin. Young stands to be the biggest benefactor of a strong bounce-back season from mobile QB Nathan Scheelhaase.
15. Damon Bullock – Iowa
How Bullock is utilized will determine where he stands on this list at season’s end. The rising junior opened the year as the starter. A concussion suffered against Northern Iowa cleared the way for Weisman (eighth on this list). Bullock played well, but not sensational, in 100-yard efforts – a win at Northern Illinois and a loss at Northwestern. However, Bullock averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on the season and he went for 3.3 or fewer in three of his five starts.
Topics: Big Ten, Illinois Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers