The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the quarterbacks in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel.
Here's how Athlon ranks the Big Ten running backs for 2012:
1. Montee Ball, Wisconsin (SR)
Rushing Stats: 307 att., 1,923 yards, 33 TD
Receiving Stats: 24 rec., 306 yards, 6 TD
There is little room left on Ball’s resume for another stellar season but that is exactly what Big Ten fans should expect in 2012. No player in the nation rushed for more yards that the Heisman Trophy finalist last fall and no player in history has scored more touchdowns than his Barry Sanders-tying 39 total touchdowns (well, officially). Big Red fans would be fooling themselves, however, if they think Ball will come close to repeating his unprecedented performance. Three first-team All-Big Ten lineman are gone. The greatest quarterback in program history is gone. And the greatest playcaller in school history in Paul Chryst is gone. New coordinator Matt Canada has been playing with two-back sets, so James White expects to get plenty of touches as well. Certainly, the offense will still run directly through No. 28, but something closer to 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns should be expected — which would be excellent numbers normally but are dwarfed by his 2011 Hall of Fame-type production.
2. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska (SR)
Rushing Stats: 284 att., 1,357 yards, 15 TD
Receiving Stats: 21 rec., 177 yards, 2 TD
There may not be a more complete football player in the nation than Rex Burkhead. He is a tremendous leader who delivers toughness and effort on every play. He can hit the edge, move the pile, pick up the blitz and catch passes with ease. In the win over new divisional rival Iowa, he set a school record for rushing attempts in a single game with 38. He is a true workhorse who can be counted on all three downs in all four quarters all season long. In his first full season as the starter, he delivered over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns — numbers which pale in comparison to Montee Ball’s a year ago but are elite nationally. Three starters are gone from the offensive line, but the receiving corps is possibly the best in the league and Taylor Martinez should be in for his best season. All of which is built upon a foundation laid by Burkhead.
3. Silas Redd, Penn State (JR)
Rushing Stats: 244 att., 1,241 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 9 rec., 40 yards
In his first full season as the starter, Redd got started quickly with 104 yards and two scores in the 2011 debut. He then got Big Ten play started by topping the 100-yard mark in five straight conference games to help the Nittany Lions start 5-0. Yet, without any semblance of production from the quarterback position and the breaking Jerry Sandusky scandal, Redd and the Lions limped down the stretch. Redd returns to an offense that still lacks a proven signal caller and has major rebuilding issues along the offensive line. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior has NFL ability and could find sledding tough under new head coach Bill O’Brien in what could be his final season in Happy Valley. Make no mistake, however, there is one name that needs to be healthy and productive over all others on this offense and it’s Redd.
4. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan (JR)
Rushing Stats: 187 att., 1,041 yards, 9 TD
Receiving Stats: 6 rec., 28 yards, TD1
Toussaint entered his junior year having played in only six career games. He began the season in nice fashion with a pair of touchdowns in the season opener, but it wasn’t until late October that Brady Hoke finally realized what he had in No. 28. He had never topped the 14-carry mark until October 29 against Purdue when got 20 carries and produced in a big way. He rushed for 170 yards and two scores in the 36-14 win. He went on to top the century mark in four of the final five games of the regular season. Toussaint finished as Michigan’s first 1,000-yard running back since Mike Hart in 2007, and he did it by averaging 5.5 yards per carry. There is no doubt that Hoke wants a secondary rushing option to Denard Robinson and Toussaint gives him just that.
5. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State (JR)
Rushing Stats: 182 att., 948 yards, 13 TD
Receiving Stats: 35 rec., 267 yards
Bell has the potential to be a first-team All-Big Ten player if he can provide consistent production week in and week out. He has scored 21 touchdowns in two seasons as an underclassman and has the frame — 6-foot-2, 238 pounds — to be a future star on the next level. However, Bell has only one game of at least 20 carries in his career and failed to score in 14 of his 27 career games — meaning he scored 21 times in 13 games. This is likely why Mark Dantonio has felt the need to motivate the rising junior this spring. The head coach knows that much of the team’s offensive success in 2012 will run through Bell. The Ohio native has a chance at a special season behind a solid offensive line if he can play with consistency and dedication.
6. James White, Wisconsin (JR)
Rushing Stats: 141 att., 713 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 15 rec., 150 yards
White has totaled nearly 2,000 yards rushing and exactly 20 touchdowns in two seasons as a backup in the run-heavy Wisconsin offense. New coordinator Matt Canada appears to be more dedicated to getting White the ball in 2012. The Badgers will line-up in more two-backs sets with both he and Montee Ball on the field at the same time. Using the talented junior-to-be more in the slot as a receiver, and as the ball carrier, will allow Canada to get his best players on the field while also resting his star tailback a bit more. White is as good a complimentary piece as there is in the nation.
7. Stephen Houston, Indiana (JR)
Rushing Stats: 151 att., 802 yards, 8 TD
Receiving Stats: 17 rec., 164 yards
There wasn’t much to like about the Hoosiers offensive attack in 2011, but over the course of the second half of the season, Indiana fans could take pride in the rushing attack. This was due in part to the emergence of talented dual-threat quarterback Tre Roberson, but Kevin Wilson also decided to give Houston the football more. The junior college transfer got only 22 carries in the first four games of his Indiana career last fall. Over the last eight games of the year, however, Houston averaged nearly 18 touches per game and over 100 yards from scrimmage. He topped the century mark in rushing three times in the final seven games and scored seven of his eight touchdowns over that span. The 6-foot, 220-pounder earned IU Offensive Player of the Week four times last fall and returns to Bloomington as the focal point of the offense.
8. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State (JR)
Rushing Stats: 106 att., 588 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 73 yards
Not much is really known about the Ohio State rushing attack other than there are loads of talented options vying for touches. Quarterback Braxton Miller could lead the team in rushing once again, but in Urban Meyer’s spread, Hyde has the skills to be the power back the new head coach craves. Hyde, at 235 pounds could fill the Tim Tebow role in the legendary spread attack. He has the best chance to be the workhorse if there is such a thing in this scheme and will likely have the most rushing attempts at season’s end. Settling the offensive line, something that isn’t making Meyer happy at the moment, will be key this summer for anyone running the football in Columbus.
9. Akeem Shavers, Purdue (SR)
Rushing Stats: 111 att., 519 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 5 rec., 58 yards, TD
Shavers played well in a supporting role of starter Ralph Bolden a year ago and provided solid production. In his first season in West Lafayette after attending junior college, Shavers never saw more than 13 carries in any one game. That is, until the Boilermakers first bowl since 2007 when Bolden went down with another knee injury in the regular season finale. In the Little Caesars Bowl win over Western Michigan, Shavers posted a career high in carries (22) and yards (149) and earned bowl MVP honors. While Bolden recovers from his third torn ACL injury, Shavers appears poised for a breakout season for Danny Hope.
10. Donovonn Young, Illinois (SO)
Rushing Stats: 87 att., 451 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 8 rec., 15 yards
On an offense that struggled mightily last fall, Young appears to be the feature back. He will certainly have some competition from fellow sophomore Josh Ferguson (150 yards in the spring game), but Young is the leading returning running back in yards, attempts and touchdowns. He missed most of spring football with a foot injury but displayed plenty of big play ability in his first season on the team. He posted his first and only 100-yard game against Western Michigan and posted a career-high in attempts in the bowl win over UCLA. If this offense is going to improve under Tim Beckman in year one, it will have to feature an improved running game.
11. Larry Caper, Michigan State (SR)
Rushing Stats: 30 att., 116 yards, TD
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 86 yards, TD
After a promising freshman season, and very high profile game-winner against Notre Dame, Caper has seen his production drop two years in a row. He has also missed some time over the last two seasons for a variety of injuries. Yet, Caper enters his final season at Michigan State with lofty expectations. Mark Dantonio is counting on Caper to help lead what will be a very inexperienced offense, and productive or not, the senior tailback has played in 34 career games. Fans should see plenty of Caper.
12. Treyvon Green, Northwestern (SO)
Rushing Stats: 97 att., 362 yards, 4 TD
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 39 yards
Quarterback/wide receiver/running back Kain Colter led the Wildcats in rushing a year ago, but Green is technically the leading returning running back. After a solid freshman season, the 215-pound tailback from Mesquite, Texas has a chance to explode onto the scene. He got loads of experience against some of the Big Ten’s best defensive units with 46 of his carries came against Illinois, Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska. His 362 yards are the most by a Northwestern true freshman since Tyrell Sutton in 2005.
Others Names to Watch:
13. Josh Ferguson, Illinois (SO)
Ferguson was low on the touches totem pole last season but won’t have that issue in 2012. After 150 yards in the spring game filling in for injured Donovonn Young, Ferguson appears poised to be the clear No. 2 for the Illini. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound in-state native has a chance to be a great change of pace to the the 215-pound Donovonn Young.
14. Greg Garmon, Iowa (FR)
There aren’t too many true freshman as battle tested as Greg Garmon. His home burnt down when he was in the sixth grade and he has already overcome a rare form of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (roughly 10 in one million before age of 15) at age 13. Maneuvering Big Ten defenses should be a breeze for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Erie, Pa., native.
15. Bri’onte Dunn, Ohio State (FR)
Competing with Garmon for Freshman of the Year honors in the Big Ten could be Top-100 recruit Brio’onte Dunn. All signs are that the early enrollee has earned some touches in the backfield rotation after a productive spring practice. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder could finish as high as No. 2 on the Ohio State depth chart if he continues his solid play.
16. Jordan Hall, Ohio State (SR)
The smaller, more nimble Hall will be used plenty this fall by Urban Meyer — it just may not be in the traditional backfield sets.
17. Mike Trumpy, Northwestern (JR)
Tore his ACL last fall against Illinois. What Trumpy lacks in pure, physical talent he makes up for with toughness, heart and effort when healthy.
18. Donnell Kirkwood, Minnesota (JR)
With Duane Bennett gone from campus, Kirkwood is the leading returning tailback for an offense that could be better than it has been in years.
19. James Gillum, Minnesota (JR)
After two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, the 5-foot-11, 204-pound tailback will compete for carries with Kirkwood right away.
20. Akeem Hunt, Purdue (SO)
Clearly the No. 2 Akeem Boilermaker runner, Hunt offers speedy change of pace to Shavers.
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
Related Content Links:
Big Ten Football: Ranking the Big Ten Quarterbacks
Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions