The Big Ten returns six 1,000-yard rushers from 2016, including a Heisman Trophy candidate in Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, along with Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Ohio State’s Mike Weber. Jackson has recorded three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, while Weber posted 1,096 in his first year of action with the Buckeyes. Minnesota’s Rodney Smith quietly rushed for 1,158 yards last fall and returns to anchor the backfield with Shannon Brooks. Iowa’s Akrum Wadley and Maryland’s Ty Johnson also return after 1,000-yard campaigns last season.
Having two running backs is almost essential for every college football team. While some teams have workhorse options that can handle 275 or 300 carries, most programs want to have at least two (and sometimes three) running backs to split up the workload. The thought process is pretty simple: Take the workload off one player and spread it around to keep everyone fresh. This concept seems to gain more steam each year, as a running game is no longer about just one go-to back. Instead, most teams need at least two solid ball-carriers to lead the way on the ground.
Ranking the running back tandems by conference is no easy task. How do you weigh two solid options versus one standout and a question mark at backup? Here are the Big Ten teams ranked by the running back tandems (projected No. 1 and No. 2 rushers and not the entire backfield depth chart) for the upcoming year. Note: We did take into account some projection for the 2017 season and how the running backs will perform - not strictly based on what they have done in their career so far.
Ranking the Big Ten RB Tandems for 2017
14. Indiana: Mike Majette and Devonte Williams
At least one Indiana running back has recorded more than 1,000 rushing yards in three consecutive seasons. Will that streak extend to four in 2017? New coordinator Mike DeBord must replace Devine Redding (1,122 yards) after he departed early for the NFL. A handful of backs are vying to replace Redding, including Devonte Williams (167 yards last year), Cole Gest (47), Tyler Natee (237) and Mike Majette (180). The player who generated the most attention in this race was Camion Patrick. However, Patrick was forced to retire due to injuries in late July, adding more uncertainty to this backfield.
13. Illinois: Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin
The Fighting Illini will open 2017 fall workouts with question marks about the offensive line and quarterback play, but coach Lovie Smith’s team has talent at the skill positions. Kendrick Foster returns after leading the team with 720 yards and seven rushing scores last fall. He’s joined by Reggie Corbin, who showed promise as a freshman in 2016 by rushing for 523 yards and two scores. Corbin should have an even bigger role in the ground attack this season.
12. Nebraska: Tre Bryant and Devine Ozigbo
The Cornhuskers have struggled to find a clear No. 1 running back since Ameer Abdullah departed Lincoln. Terrell Newby led the team in rushing yardage but failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark in each of the last two seasons. With Newby out of eligibility, Nebraska is looking for a new No. 1 option and could turn to a committee approach. Ozigbo (412 yards last season) and Bryant (172 yards) get the nod as the top options here, but junior Mikale Wilbon (89 yards in 2016) is also expected to see his share of the workload. Ozigbo rushed for 242 yards through the first three games of 2016 but only accumulated 177 the rest of the way.
11. Rutgers: Robert Martin and Josh Hicks
New play-caller Jerry Kill inherits an offense that averaged only 9.6 points in Big Ten games last fall. But the former Minnesota coach has a promising stable of running backs to work with, and the depth improved here over the offseason when Rutgers landed Miami graduate transfer Gus Edwards. Martin has led the team in rushing yardage in each of the last two years, posting 625 and two touchdowns on 121 carries last fall. Justin Goodwin ranked second on the team with 517 yards but expired his eligibility. Senior Josh Hicks finished with just 157 yards last fall and hopes to return to his 2015 form (674 yards and four scores).
10. Purdue: Markell Jones and D.J. Knox
Despite the No. 10 ranking here, the running back position should be a strength for new coach Jeff Brohm. Jones emerged as the team’s top option at running back as a freshman in 2015 and led the team once again in yardage (616 yards and four scores) last fall. In each of Brohm’s three years at WKU, the Hilltoppers produced a 1,000-yard rusher. Jones may not hit that mark, but the junior should have his best all-around season in West Lafayette. Knox missed 2016 due to a torn ACL and is back to work as the No. 2 option. He rushed for 409 yards and two touchdowns in 2015.
9. Michigan: Chris Evans and Ty Isaac
Jim Harbaugh has a deep group of running backs to build a punishing ground game for 2017. Last year’s leading rusher (De’Veon Smith) departs, but Chris Evans (614 yards) is a rising star. As a freshman last fall, Evans averaged nearly seven yards per carry (6.98), scored four times on the ground and posted one 100-yard effort (153 against Rutgers). Look for his numbers to climb with more opportunities. Karan Higdon (425 yards) and Ty Isaac (417) are in the mix for the No. 2 job, but the name to watch is redshirt freshman Kareem Walker. The New Jersey native ranked as the No. 106 prospect in the 2016 247Sports Composite.
8. Michigan State: LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes
It's a toss-up between Michigan or Michigan State at eight/nine in the Big Ten. In order for the Spartans to return to the postseason in 2017, the offense is going to need a big year from the ground game. Scott has led the team in rushing in each of the last two seasons and just missed the 1,000-yard mark (994) in 12 games last fall. Scott posted four 100-yard efforts over the final six contests last year, including 160 against Ohio State and 139 against Michigan. Holmes has been a valuable No. 2 option for coach Mark Dantonio and enters 2017 with 1,015 career yards.
7. Maryland: Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison
The Terrapins boast the Big Ten’s most underrated backfield for 2017. Johnson returns after leading the team with 1,004 yards and six rushing scores last year. The 1,000-yard season was the first by a Maryland rusher since 2008. Additionally, Johnson averaged a ridiculous 9.1 per-carry average and posted nine rushes of 40 yards or more. Harrison wasn’t far off Johnson’s torrid pace, as the Maryland native posted an average of 7.2 yards per carry and 633 yards in nine games.
6. Wisconsin: Bradrick Shaw and Chris James
Corey Clement expired his eligibility, but as usual, the Badgers won’t miss a beat on the ground. Coach Paul Chryst has a couple of talented backs to lean on, along with one of the nation’s top offensive lines. Shaw rushed for 457 yards and five scores as the team’s No. 3 back last season. He’s slated to assume the No. 1 role, with Taiwan Deal (164 yards) working in as the No. 3 option. Pitt transfer Chris James is slated to win the backup job and figures to be a valuable receiver out of the backfield for quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
5. Minnesota: Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks
New coach P.J. Fleck inherits an offense with uncertainty at quarterback, but there’s little concern about the ground attack. The Golden Gophers return the top two performers from last year’s backfield, with Rodney Smith earning second-team All-Big Ten honors by Athlon Sports. Smith led the team with 1,158 yards and 16 scores last fall and also chipped in 23 catches for 188 yards. He also recorded five 100-yard performances in Big Ten play. Brooks led the team in rushing yardage in 2015 (709) and remained a key cog as the No. 2 back in 2016. In 10 appearances (and while dealing with a foot injury), Brooks rushed for 650 yards and five scores.
4. Iowa: Akrum Wadley and James Butler
The Hawkeyes were already set to have one of the Big Ten’s top backfields with Wadley anchoring the ground game after rushing for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. However, this group got an additional boost with the arrival of Nevada graduate transfer James Butler in early July. Butler posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Wolf Pack and scored 22 times on the ground in that span. Wadley is also a valuable weapon in the passing game, as he grabbed 36 receptions in 2016.
3. Ohio State: Mike Weber and Demario McCall
Kevin Wilson’s arrival as Ohio State’s new play-caller should provide a needed spark for the offense. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is likely to benefit the most from Wilson’s arrival, but Weber should be more involved in the offense after rushing for 1,096 yards and nine scores last season. Although Weber eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, he only had one game (Penn State) of more than 20 carries and accumulated just 16 touches combined against Michigan and Clemson. McCall rushed for 270 yards and three touchdowns last season and will contribute to the ground game once again. However, he could spend some time at h-back, opening the door for Dobbins – the No. 43 overall player in the 2017 247Sports Composite – to push for carries.
2. Northwestern: Justin Jackson and John Moten IV
Jackson has been one of the Big Ten’s most consistent performers in the conference over the last three years. He’s eclipsed 1,000 yards every season in that span and ranks second in career rushing yards among active FBS players. Additionally, Jackson’s 1,524 rushing yards 15 scores last year were both career-high marks. Moten flashed potential as Jackson’s backup in 2016, rushing for 340 yards and two touchdowns on 57 attempts.
1. Penn State: Saquan Barkley and Miles Sanders
The nation’s No. 1 running back for 2017 resides in Happy Valley, as Barkley returns to lead the Penn State offense after rushing for 1,496 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Barkley has rushed for over 1,000 yards in both of his years on campus and should easily earn another 1,000-yard campaign with an improved offensive line in 2017. Miles Sanders is expected to work as the No. 2 option after rushing for 184 yards and one score as a freshman in 2016. The Pittsburgh native was a five-star recruit and the No. 20 overall player in the 2016 247Sports Composite.