The Big Ten doesn’t have the deepest set of running backs in the nation, but the 2013 group still boasts plenty of talented options.
Northwestern’s Venric Mark shined in his first full year at running back, while Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah kept the Cornhuskers’ rushing attack going with Rex Burkhead sidelined due to a knee injury. Montee Ball is gone at Wisconsin, but James White and Melvin Gordon could be among the nation’s best one-two combinations.
After the top group, there’s plenty of intriguing options waiting to step up, including Michigan’s Derrick Green, Purdue’s Akeem Hunt and Ohio State’s Jordan Hall.
College football’s 2013 season is still months away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about some of the top players in the nation. With spring practice coming to a close around the nation, Athlon will rank the top running backs in each conference.
Ranking the Big Ten Running Backs for 2013
1. Venric Mark, Northwestern (SR)
In his first full season at running back, Mark emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top rushers. Mark spent the first two years at receiver but caught only six passes during that stretch. Moving the Texas native to running back proved to be a shrewd coaching decision by Pat Fitzgerald, as Mark ended the year with 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns, while catching 20 passes for 104 yards. His best performance came against Minnesota, recording 182 yards and two touchdowns on 20 attempts. Mark also rushed for 162 yards against Iowa and 104 yards against Michigan. At 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Mark isn’t the biggest back, so Northwestern will have to be careful not to overwork him in 2013.
2. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska (JR)
Despite losing Rex Burkhead to a knee injury early last season, Nebraska’s rushing attack never missed a beat. Abdullah became the Cornhuskers go-to back in 2012, recording 1,137 yards and eight scores. He also caught 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Abdullah recorded six 100-yard efforts, including four consecutive games in the middle of the season. His best performance came against Arkansas State, rushing for 167 yards and two touchdowns, while recording 116 in the 32-23 win over Penn State in early November. With Burkhead out of eligibility and Braylon Heard transferring, Abdullah is clearly set as Nebraska’s top back for 2013. With one of the top offensive lines in the conference blocking for him, Abdullah should push for first-team All-Big Ten honors.
3. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin (SO)
The heir apparent to Montee Ball’s ridiculous production will be the redshirt sophomore from Kenosha (Wisc.) Bradford. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is one of the most talented runners in the Big Ten and has a chance to pick up where Ball left off. Gordon has the power and burst through the hole as he averaged over 10 yards per carry as a freshman in 2012. He showed the nation how good he could be in last season's Big Ten title game against Nebraska, rushing for 216 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries. James White will get plenty of touches but Gordon is the most talented runner on the UW roster.
4. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State (SR)
The 240-pound bowling ball from Naples (Fla.) High had a breakout second half in 2012. After missing two games early in the year to injury, Hyde returned to the lineup and rushed for 14 of his 16 touchdowns over the final seven games. He posted four games of at least 137 yards rushing over that span and was just 30 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. The Ohio State system will always spread the ball around but the senior-to-be’s proficiency around the goal line and in short yardage situations makes him the ideal complement to dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller.
5. James White, Wisconsin (SR)
The 5-foot-10, 197-pound runner is destined to be one of the best No. 2 backs in history. Even in high school, White was second fiddle to Giovani Bernard at prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. White then rushed for 1,052 yards as a freshman behind John Clay before spending the next two seasons behind the record-setting Montee Ball. White enters his final season with an impressive 2,941 career yards from scrimmage and 33 total touchdowns. Yet, he should once again be a more of a complimentary piece to new workhorse Melvin Gordon.
6. Zach Zwinak, Penn State (SR)
The burly senior-to-be from Frederick (Md.) Linganore didn’t get the starting call until Week 4 last year but was unstoppable from the word go. He rushed for 94 yards in his first extensive action against Temple before rattling off six 100-yard games in a total of eight Big Ten contests. He rushed for exactly 1,000 yards — all but two of those yards coming in Penn Sate's final nine games — and scored seven total touchdowns. He is a physical, bruising 234-pound converted fullback who will be asked to carry more of the load as Penn State breaks in a new quarterback.
7. Mark Weisman, Iowa (JR)
Iowa’s bad luck with running backs continued last season, as an injury to Damon Bullock opened the door for Weisman to become the No. 1 back in Iowa City. After recording just two carries in the first two games, Weisman posted four consecutive 100-yard performances, including 217 yards and three scores against Central Michigan. Weisman also battled injuries late in the year but finished with 91 yards against Nebraska in the season finale. With three starters back on the offensive line and an unproven quarterback taking over, Iowa should lean on Weisman and Bullock to carry the offense in 2013. If Weisman stays healthy, 1,000 yards should be within reach.
8. Stephen Houston, Indiana (SR)
The former junior college transfer hails originally from Little Rock (Ark.) Lakota West. But after 1,082 yards at Independence (Kan.) Community College., Houston landed in Bloomington. In his first season, he sparked the Hoosiers' rushing attack with 711 of his 802 yards and seven of his eight touchdowns in Big Ten play. He increased his workload as a junior last year, scoring 16 times on 198 offensive touches. The 225-pounder has power and speed and gives Kevin Wilson exactly what he wants in his backfield. But keep an eye on sophomore Tevin Coleman, as he could cut into Houston's workload in 2013.
9. Akeem Hunt, Purdue (JR)
The Covington (Ga.) Newton prospect has played in 25 of 26 possible career games since coming to Purdue. He has rushed for 622 yards in his first two seasons, acting primarily as a backup to Akeem Shavers (’12) and Ralph Bolden (’11). The 5-foot-9, 184-pound tailback now has a chance to shine as the starter for new head coach Darrell Hazell — who had extremely productive all-purpose backs at Kent State.
10. Donnell Kirkwood, Minnesota (JR)
Inconsistency on the offensive line prevented Minnesota’s ground game from getting on track last season, but Kirkwood still finished with 926 yards and six scores. He recorded three 100-yard performances, including 152 yards on 28 attempts against Illinois. Kirkwood had a solid game against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, rushing for 77 yards and one score on 19 attempts. With sophomore Phillip Nelson still learning the ropes at quarterback, it’s important for Minnesota’s rushing attack to have a big season. Kirkwood has shown potential but needs to top 1,000 yards and become the clear go-to back for the Golden Gophers.
11. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan (SR)
Toussaint had a year to forget in 2012. After a suspension to open the year, he suffered a broken leg against Iowa on Nov. 17. Toussaint finished last season with 514 yards and five scores and never topped 100 yards in any one game. Some of the blame for Michigan’s struggles on the ground was due to the offensive line, but Toussaint will be under pressure to perform this fall, especially with top freshman Derrick Green poised to push for time. Considering Toussaint is coming off a significant leg injury, he could be rusty to start the season.
12. Derrick Green, Michigan (FR)
Even though Fitzgerald Toussaint is expected to return by the season opener from a serious leg injury, Green could be tough to keep off the field. The Virginia native ranked as the No. 26 overall prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and has the size and skill set necessary to be an every-down back for Michigan. Even if Green plays in just a complementary role, expect him to see plenty of action for the Wolverines as a true freshman.
13. Jordan Hall, Ohio State (SR)
The small, speedy Buckeyes running back has played in at least six games in four straight seasons in Columbus. However, the Jeannette (Pa.) High product spent most of last year sidelined with a bizarre foot injury and eventual PCL tear in his knee. He brings speed and big-play ability to the backfield when healthy and should easily top his career highs of 99 carries, 405 yards and two rushing touchdowns in 2013.
14. Imani Cross, Nebraska (SO)
With Braylon Heard transferring, Cross is firmly entrenched as the backup to Ameer Abdullah. Last season, the Georgia native rushed for 324 yards and seven scores on 55 attempts. Cross rushed for 100 yards against Idaho State and recorded 35 yards and one score against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, Cross provides more power than Abdullah and should easily surpass last year’s rushing totals.
15. Donovonn Young, Illinois (JR)
The 220-pound junior-to-be led the Illini in carries (131) and yards (571) while scoring more rushing touchdowns (3) than every other running back combined. Illinois needs more production from its running game and that responsibility falls on Young in 2013.
16. Nick Hill, Michigan State (JR)
Replacing Le’Veon Bell will be a tough task for Michigan State. The Spartans finished spring practice without much clarity in the backfield, and the picture was clouded even more when linebacker Riley Bullough switched to running back and shined in the spring game. Hill is the team’s leading returning rusher, recording 48 yards and one touchdown on 21 attempts last year. Although Hill has the edge on the stat sheet, he needs a big performance in the fall to secure the top spot on the depth chart.
17. Akeel Lynch, Penn State (FR)
Lynch, a 215-pounder from Ontario, Canada, redshirted last season but showed fans in spring practice what to expect in 2013. The longtime PSU fan rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown in the spring, giving Bill O’Brien another talented option in the backfield.
18. Damon Bullock, Iowa (JR)
The Mansfield (Texas) High product enters his third year after an effective year of spot duty for Iowa. Bullock only played in six games but got at least 22 carries in five of those six and posted 85.5 yards per game when he played.
19. Josh Ferguson, Illinois (SO)
The third-year running back from Naperville (Ill) Joliet Catholic saw limited action a year ago, rushing for 312 yards on 75 carries. Yet, he provided a boost in the passing game, catching 29 balls for 251 yards. Look for more work from the all-purpose back this fall.
20. R.J. Shelton, Michigan State (FR)
This spot is essentially a placeholder for one of Michigan State’s three incoming freshmen running backs. Shelton, Delton Williams and Gerald Holmes all will have an opportunity to battle Nick Hill, Riley Bullough, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins for the starting job. Shelton was a three-star recruit by Rivals.com and could see significant action in 2013.
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