Ranking the Big Ten's Running Backs for 2015

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott ranks No. 1.

The Big Ten boasted the nation’s only two running backs that eclipsed 2,000 yards last season, and both players – Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman – have moved onto the NFL. But the running back position isn’t devoid of talent in the conference in 2015, as Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott is one of the nation’s best and is back to help the Buckeyes’ make another run at the national title.

 

Elliott is the clear No. 1 back in the Big Ten, but Wisconsin’s Corey Clement should be a capable replacement for Gordon, and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson is a rising star entering his sophomore year.

 

To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2015. This was not a ranking of running backs only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors - pure talent, supporting cast, 2015 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) - were considered and projected to rank the running backs in the Big Ten for 2015.

 

Ranking the Big Ten’s Running Backs for 2015

 

1. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

 

Elliott is in the mix to be the nation’s top running back after a strong finish to the 2014 season. The Missouri native rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the final five games, including 220 or more in each of the last three. Elliott gashed Oregon for 246 yards and four scores in Ohio State’s national championship win.

 

Related: Ohio State's Urban Meyer is the Big Ten's No. 1 Coach for 2015

 

2. Corey Clement, Wisconsin

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

 

Melvin Gordon leaves big shoes to fill in Madison, but the Badgers are in great shape at running back. Clement is slated to move into the No. 1 role after working as Gordon’s top backup in 2014. In 14 games last season, Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine scores and averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 147 attempts.

 

3. Justin Jackson, Northwestern

2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore

 

Venric Mark’s August departure created a void in Northwestern’s rushing attack, but Jackson quickly emerged as the go-to option for coach Pat Fitzgerald. In 12 games, Jackson recorded 1,187 yards and 10 scores and caught 22 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown. The Illinois native rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last three games, including a 149-yard effort against Notre Dame.

 

Related: Ranking the Big Ten's Football Coaching Jobs for 2015

 

4. Jordan Howard, Indiana

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

 

Make no mistake: Tevin Coleman will be missed this year. However, Indiana found an excellent replacement in Howard, who was eligible to play immediately after transferring in from UAB. In 12 games with the Blazers last season, Howard recorded 1,587 yards and 13 scores. Howard posted solid outings against SEC competition (89 yards against Mississippi State and 90 yards against Arkansas) and gashed Southern Mississippi in the 2014 season finale for 262 yards.

 

5. Akeel Lynch, Penn State

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

 

Largely due to a struggling offensive line, Penn State’s rushing attack managed only 74.8 yards per game last season. The outlook on the Nittany Lions’ line is better in 2015, and the rushing game should show improvement on the stat sheet. Lynch led the team with 678 yards and also scored four of the team’s 13 rushing touchdowns. The second half of the year is where Lynch asserted himself as the team’s top back, rushing for 130 yards against Temple and 137 against Illinois. Lynch is a name that could climb this list by a couple of spots if Penn State’s offensive line takes a major step forward.

 

Related: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg Ranks as the Big Ten's No. 3 QB for 2015

 

6. Josh Ferguson, Illinois

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

 

With standout receiver Mike Dudek out indefinitely with a torn ACL, the Fighting Illini need quarterback Wes Lunt and running back Josh Ferguson to take on an even bigger role in the offense this year. Ferguson has led the team in rushing yardage in back-to-back seasons and has 131 receptions in four years of playing time. Ferguson’s workload will likely increase this season after never surpassing 15 carries in any game in 2014.

 

7. Terrell Newby, Nebraska

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

 

Replacing Ameer Abdullah isn’t going to be easy for new coach Mike Riley. The Cornhuskers have three potential replacements for Abdullah, with Newby exiting spring as the favorite. The California native has played in a reserve role over the last two seasons and posted nearly identical statistical outputs. Newby rushed for 297 yards on 67 attempts in 2014 and 298 yards on 54 carries in 2013. Imani Cross and Adam Taylor will also see time in the backfield this year.

 

8. Ty Isaac, Michigan

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

 

This spot could go to Derrick Green, but let’s project Isaac to have an impact in his first year in Ann Arbor. Isaac was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and managed 236 yards on 40 carries as a freshman at USC in 2013. After sitting out last season due to transfer rules, Isaac was limited in the spring with an ankle injury. However, at 240 pounds, he’s a power runner and a good fit for coach Jim Harbaugh’s offense.

 

Related: Where is Jim Harbaugh in the Big Ten Coach Rankings for 2015?

 

9. Paul James, Rutgers

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

 

A running back from Rutgers should be on this list. But which one? Paul James led the Scarlet Knights with 881 yards and nine scores in 2013 and rushed for 363 yards through the first four games of 2014. However, James has battled injuries throughout his career, and sophomores Josh Hicks and Robert Martin emerged as breakout players at the end of last year. Will James return at full strength from a torn ACL? Or will Martin or Hicks claim the top spots in the Rutgers’ backfield?

 

10. Jordan Canzeri, Iowa

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

 

Mark Weisman has expired his eligibility, leaving Iowa with Canzeri, LeShun Daniels, Jonathan Parker and Akrum Wadley battling for carries this offseason. Canzeri is the leading candidate to replace Weisman after finishing second on the team with 494 yards last year. However, a committee approach is likely for coach Kirk Ferentz in 2015.

 

Other Big Ten Running Backs to Watch in 2015

 

Imani Cross, Nebraska

Cross has rushed for 1,184 yards and 22 rushing scores over the last three years in Lincoln. Terrell Newby is expected to start, but Cross will remain involved in Nebraska’s new offense.

 

Derrick Green, Michigan

Green was off to a promising start last year, rushing for 471 yards and three scores on 82 attempts before a season-ending clavicle injury. He will compete with Ty Isaac and De’Veon Smith for the No. 1 spot in Michigan’s backfield.

 

Keyante Green/Markell Jones, Purdue

The Boilermakers must replace their top two running backs from last season, with Green and Jones slated to battle for the top spot in the fall. Green rushed for 199 yards on 27 attempts in a reserve role in 2014, while Markell Jones is expected to push for time after winning Indiana’s Mr. Football award as a high school senior.

 

Josh Hicks/Robert Martin, Rutgers

Promising sophomore duo will push Paul James for snaps this season.

 

Madre London/Gerald Holmes/LJ Scott/Delton Williams, Michigan State

All signs point to Michigan State using a committee approach as it looks to replace Jeremy Langford. London, Holmes, Scott and Williams are talented, but will one runner clearly emerge as the No. 1 option?

 

Brandon Ross, Maryland

Quarterback C.J. Brown led the team with 539 rushing yards last season, while Ross finished second with 419 yards. The senior is slated to take the top spot in the backfield, but the Terrapins will utilize Wes Brown plenty in 2015.

 

Curtis Samuel, Ohio State

Samuel should have a bigger role in Ohio State’s offense after averaging 6.6 yards per carry on 58 attempts in 2014.

 

Rodrick Williams, Minnesota

If Williams is going to get the full workload in Minnesota’s offense, then the senior should be among the top 10 names on this list. However, redshirt freshman Rodney Smith is in the mix for carries, as well as talented redshirt freshman Jeff Jones (if he doesn’t stay at receiver). 

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