Melvin Gordon takes the top spot in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten is well-stocked with talent at running back for 2014. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is a projected first-team All-American, while Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah isn’t far behind. Gordon and Abdullah each averaged over six yards per carry in Big Ten games last year.
The depth at running back extends beyond Gordon and Abdullah with Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford, Northwestern’s Venric Mark and a rising star in Indiana’s Tevin Coleman.
To help prepare for the 2014 season, Athlon Sports has ranked the top 20 running backs in the Big Ten.
How were the rankings compiled? Glad you asked.
Something important to remember: This is not a career ranking heading into the 2014 season. Instead, several factors were considered. How the player projects in 2014, value to the team, overall talent level and production so far in his career. Past performance is critical, but a large portion of the rankings was based on what we think these running backs will do in 2014. And a slight bump in ranking was handed to the projected starter of a team.
Ranking the Big Ten's Running Backs for 2014
|1||Melvin Gordon||Gordon will assume the No. 1 role in the Wisconsin backfield after sharing time with James White last year. In 125 carries during conference play, Gordon rushed for 903 yards and eight scores. He finished No. 2 in the Big Ten with a 7.8 yards per carry and recorded six runs of 40 yards or more.|
|2||Ameer Abdullah||If Melvin Gordon is No. 1, then Abdullah is No. 1A. In eight Big Ten games last season, Abdullah finished No. 2 in the conference with 1,103 yards. Abdullah scored only five times in conference play but showcased his versatility by finishing 2013 with 26 catches.|
|3||Jeremy Langford||The emergence of Langford and quarterback Connor Cook were a big reason why Michigan State claimed the Big Ten title. Langford rushed for 1,070 yards in nine Big Ten contests and led all backs within the conference with 292 carries in 14 games.|
|4||Venric Mark||Mark was expected to be one of the top running backs in the Big Ten last season, but his 2013 campaign never got on track due to injury. Mark finished with just 97 rushing yards and earned a medical hardship after missing nine games. When healthy, Mark is one of the Big Ten's most explosive runners and is a valuable asset on returns.|
|5||Tevin Coleman||Coleman was on his way to a 1,000-yard season when an ankle injury forced him to miss the final three games. In 131 carries, Coleman averaged a healthy 7.3 yards per carry and led the Big Ten with eight runs of 40 yards or more.|
|6||Ezekiel Elliott||Since we are all about projecting what will happen in 2014, it's safe to say Elliott is in for a breakout year. As a backup to Carlos Hyde last season, Elliott rushed for 262 yards and two scores. Elliott was a top-100 recruit in the 2013 signing class and has the skill-set to thrive in Urban Meyer's offense. Yes, Elliott needs to prove he can handle 220-250 carries in a season, but the potential is there for a huge year.|
|7||David Cobb||With Abdullah, Hyde, Gordon, Langford and James White stealing the headlines in the Big Ten last year, Cobb's numbers were overlooked. The Minnesota back rushed for 1,202 yards, seven scores and posted six 100-yard performances.|
|8||Mark Weisman||Weisman started 2013 with three consecutive 100-yard efforts and rushed for 147 yards on 24 attempts against Minnesota in late September. However, Weisman did not record a 100-yard performance the rest of the way and fell just short of a 1,000-yard season. Weisman leads a deep Iowa backfield that includes Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock.|
|9||Corey Clement||Clement impressed in limited action last season, averaging 8.2 yards per carry on 67 attempts. With James White departing, Clement is set to be the top backup to Melvin Gordon in 2014. Clement will likely see at least 150 carries in this role, and all signs point to this sophomore becoming a star in Madison over the next two years.|
|10||Zach Zwinak||It's a tossup for the No. 1 spot in the Penn State backfield. Zwinak, Belton and Akeel Lynch are all in the mix. Zwinak rushed for 692 yards and four scores in Big Ten play and finished the year by recording four consecutive 100-yard efforts. If new coach James Franklin settles on one running back, the leading rusher could finish higher on this list.|
|11||Bill Belton||Belton finished just 186 yards behind Zach Zwinak in last year's rushing totals and should push for a split in carries in 2014. Belton recorded only 20 carries through his first three games in 2013 but rushed for 201 yards against Illinois and 98 against Ohio State. The senior had a good spring and appears poised to build off his best statistical season.|
|12||Josh Ferguson||Considering Illinois won only six games over the last two years, Ferguson has been overlooked at times among the stable of Big Ten running backs. But after finishing with back-to-back 100-yard efforts in 2013, the junior is primed for a breakout year in 2014. In addition to his solid 5.5 yards per carry, Ferguson is one of the team's top receivers (50 catches in 2013).|
|13||Imani Cross||Cross is one of the top backup running backs in the Big Ten. The 230-pound I-back scored 10 touchdowns and rushed for 447 yards on 85 attempts last season. Cross will work as the backup to Ameer Abdullah once again but should see his share of carries (85-100) in 2014.|
|14||Derrick Green||If Michigan's offense wants to take a step forward in 2014, improving the rushing attack is a priority. The Wolverines averaged only 2.5 yards per carry in Big Ten play and had only one run of 40 yards or more the entire season. Green was a huge recruit for coach Brady Hoke and managed only 270 yards in his debut. Even though Green has the talent to be a 1,000-yard rusher, he needs more help from the offensive line to reach that potential in 2014.|
|15||Wes Brown||Upside is the keyword to remember here. Brown rushed for 382 yards on 90 attempts as a freshman in 2012 but was suspended for all of 2013. The Baltimore native was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and showed plenty of promise by recording a 100-yard effort against NC State and a 74-yard effort against UConn as a freshman. Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Vei will also factor in the mix with Brown.|
|16||Paul James||James has an interesting backstory, starting at Rutgers as a walk-on and eventually moving into the starting lineup last season. Despite missing three games, he rushed for 881 yards and nine scores on 156 attempts. If James can stay healthy, and regains the form that led him to three 100-yard efforts to start 2013, he will rank higher on this list in December.|
|17||Jordan Canzeri||Canzeri will team with Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock to form one of the Big Ten's top backfields in 2014. The New York native missed 2012 due to a torn ACL but quickly rebounded in 2013 by recording 481 yards and two touchdowns. Canzeri averaged 6.5 yards per carry and gashed Purdue for 165 yards.|
|18||Rod Smith||Smith was regarded as a four-star prospect coming out of high school, but he's yet to rush for more than 215 yards in a season. Could that change in 2014? With Carlos Hyde departing, the Buckeyes will turn to Ezekiel Elliott and another running back to carry the workload. At 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds, Smith has the talent and size to produce when called upon in 2014.|
|19||Damon Bullock||Bullock is the third Iowa back to make this list. He's rushed for at least 460 yards in each of the last two years and recorded 85 yards on 10 carries against Purdue in 2013. Bullock is also a solid receiver out of the backfield (39 catches in three years).|
|20||Akeem Hunt||Considering Purdue was often playing from behind last year, the Boilermakers never had a chance to establish the run. However, coach Darrell Hazell has two intriguing options in Hunt and Raheem Mostert. Hunt averaged at least eight yards per carry in 2011 and 2012 but managed only 3.8 yards per rush in 2013.|
Others to Watch: Raheem Mostert, Purdue; Nick Hill, Michigan State; Bri'onte Dunn, Ohio State; Warren Ball, Ohio State; Akeel Lynch, Penn State; Brandon Ross, Maryland; Trevyon Green, Northwestern; De'Veon Smith, Michigan; Delton Williams, Michigan State|
Note: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State was considered a wide receiver for this article