Stacking up the Big Ten: Running Backs

While NFP director of college scouting Wes Bunting provides you with everything you need to know about future NFL prospects, we can’t forget about the productive players who help their schools on the field every Saturday but may not be made for the pro game. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the feature running backs in the Big Ten entering the 2010 season.

Click here to see Stacking up the Big East: Running Backs
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to see Stacking up the ACC: Running Backs
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to see Stacking up the Big 12: Running Backs
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to see Stacking up the Pac-10: Running Backs

John Clay, Wisconsin: After undergoing surgery on both ankles this offseason, Clay hopes to run with even more authority and try to repeat as Big Ten player of the year. The junior racked up 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground in ’09, finishing the season with 100-plus yards in the final six games. The 6-1, 248-pounder is a big back with great speed — a former track star in high school. He isn’t often used as a receiver out of the backfield, but he has decent hands to be effective. The Badgers are 9-2 when he goes over the 100-yard mark the last two seasons, and if he stays healthy he is a legitimate Heisman contender.

Note: When Clay’s time in Madison comes to an end, sophomore Montee Ball will be right there to pick up the slack. The 5-11, 234-pounder finished with 391 yards and four scores in ’09 despite not getting onto the field until the fifth game. Quick and powerful, the Badgers’ backfield will be set for awhile with Clay and Ball.

Evan RoysterICONEvan Royster is on his way to becoming Penn State’s all-time leading rusher.

Evan Royster, Penn State: Royster needs just 482 yards to pass Lydell Mitchell as Penn State’s all-time leading rusher. The senior should reach that mark early in the season, and he’ll be leaned on even more heavily as the Nittany Lions straighten out their quarterback situation. The 6-1, 213-pounder possesses the necessary size, speed and vision to be an effective back at the next level. He rushed for 1,169 yards and six scores in ’09 behind an unusually average PSU offensive line. Besides a few minor injuries in the past, he’s a durable back who should see bigger numbers this fall.

Note: Junior Stephfon Green had a great freshman campaign in ’08 but was limited last year after rehabbing his broken leg suffered in the Rose Bowl loss to USC. The 5-10, 197-pounder is very fast and is dangerous every time he’s on the field. When healthy, he brings some excitement to the Nittany Lions’ offense.

Dan Herron, Ohio State: It’s easy to overlook Herron on the Buckeyes because of quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but the junior led the team in rushing last season with 600 yards and 11 touchdowns despite dealing with a midseason ankle injury. Often splitting carries throughout his career, the 5-10, 202-pounder proved he could be a workhorse when he carried 32 times against Iowa and 19 times against Michigan in ‘09. Despite adding some bulk, Boom still possesses great speed and good vision. Can he improve as an inside runner in 2010?

Note: When Herron isn’t being featured in the Buckeyes’ backfield, senior Brandon Saine can pick up the slack. The 6-1, 219-pounder is one of the fastest players on the team and is a good receiving threat out of the backfield. He rushed for 739 yards and four scores last season and averaged over 5 yards per carry. He has all the skills to be one of the best runners in the nation but hasn’t really lived up to the lofty expectations when he arrived on campus. Will he have to deal with a nagging hamstring injury this fall?

Mikell Leshoure, Illinois: Leshoure led the Illini with 734 yards and five scores on the ground — including back-to-back 100-yard weeks. The 6-foot, 230-pounder ended the season on a high note, too, with a 184-yard, two-touchdown performance against Fresno State. The junior has nice shiftiness for a player his size, and he has surprising ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, grabbing 14 passes for 177 yards and two scores in ’09. He was one of the true bright spots of Illinois’ disastrous ’09 campaign.

Adam Robinson, Iowa: Robinson is the Hawkeyes’ leading returning rusher, but running back depth in Iowa City usually leads to a platoon in the backfield. The 5-9, 205-pound sophomore is quick and deceptively powerful running inside the tackles, finishing the ’09 season with 834 yards on the ground and five scores on 181 carries. He did seem to tire out as the season progressed, however, and he spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery. There’s no question in my mind that he’ll be able to carry the load with a full season under his belt, but the Hawkeyes have the luxury of using multiple backs — which should keep Robinson fresh for an entire year.

Note: Another sophomore, Jewel Hampton, was supposed to be the star attraction in Iowa’s backfield last season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury before the year began. The 5-9, 210-pounder will help keep Robinson fresh in the fall and he hopes to build off of a freshman campaign in ’08 where he ran for 463 yards and seven scores, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. If he remains healthy — and stays out of trouble — the rest of his career, he will force his way onto the field because he is so talented.

Darius WillisICONDarius Willis is primed for a big sophomore campaign.

Darius Willis, Indiana: Willis offers the Hoosiers hope that the offense can actually have a balanced attack in 2010. The sophomore rushed for 607 yards and six touchdowns in his debut season, and the 6-0, 225-pounder’s numbers should make a nice jump this season because of his great combination of speed and power. However, many of his yards did come in three contests, although he didn’t get a large number of carries. The talent is there, and I expect the Hoosiers to give him more of an opportunity on a consistent basis.

Larry Caper, Michigan State: Caper ended last season as Michigan State’s leading rusher with 468 yards and six touchdowns. The 5-11, 200-pounder is a tough back with decent speed and could excel out of the backfield in the passing game if given the opportunity. The sophomore likely won’t see big numbers only because of the Spartans’ backfield depth.

Note: Sophomore Edwin Baker was the stud of last year’s recruiting crop but he didn’t make as much of an impact as most had thought. He did finish second on the team with 427 yards and a score after finding the field more often in the second half of the season, with his best performance coming against Texas Tech in the bowl game. The 5-9, 19 9-pounder is fast and powerful and will team with Caper in the backfield this fall.

Other Big Ten backfields

Northwestern: Can the Wildcats have at least a decent attack on the ground this season to take the pressure off of new QB Dan Persa? Arby Fields is the leader of the pack entering fall camp.

Purdue: The injury to Ralph Bolden was just brutal for an offense that expected to put up points with Robert Marve under center. Can sophomore Al-Terek McBurse pick up the slack?

Minnesota: Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge will be the main rushers for the Gophers this fall, along with back-up quarterback MarQueis Gray.

Michigan: The Wolverines lost Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor, but the team should be in good shape with its depth. Diminutive Vincent Smith is coming off knee surgery but averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season. Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint will also compete for reps in the fall.

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