Welcome back to my ongoing Big Ten positional ratings as I try to predict the two teams who will face off in the Big Ten Championship Game this December. We’ve made it through quarterbacks already and now we finish up the running backs. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
Every team in the Big Ten East returns some semblance of a starting running back, save for Maryland, who must replace the explosive Jake Funk.
Despite quite a bit of experience returning, there’s not a ton of production in the division. The East returns just three tailbacks who rushed for more than 50 yards per game last year.
This would be a good time for some new stars to emerge, as well as for the returning veterans to have their best years ever. The trick with putting these ratings together is knowing which players will be taking the next step and which won’t.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State could break fall camp with six running backs, and all six could be starters elsewhere in the Big Ten. Master Teague started six games last year and has rushed for 1,400+ yards in his career. His 4.9 yard-per-carry average last year was disappointing, but he should be much better than that this year. Redshirt freshman Miyan Williams has been the talk of the RB room from those behind the scenes. True freshman TreVeyon Henderson was the No. 1 running back in the 2021 class and there is little doubt he will be in the rotation. Redshirt sophomore Marcus Crowley is now healthy and he’s been productive when given a chance. Steele Chambers has only averaged like 9 yards per carry as a Buckeye. True freshman Evan Pryor was one of the top RBs in the 2021 class as well. This competition will be season long.
2. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan returns Hassan Haskins, who is productive when he’s actually used. Zach Charbonnet transferred out, but he struggled to live up to expectations in Ann Arbor. Haskins isn’t flashy, but he’s a strong runner who is a better athlete than people give him credit for. He rushed for 375 yards last year in six games. In 2019, he posted 622 yards. He is averaging 5.5 yards per carry for his career. Haskins isn’t a burner, but he can catch defenses napping. Sophomore Blake Corum is the speed guy, but he was unable to break tackles last year. More is expected of him this year as he becomes a more complete player. True freshman Donovan Edwards was the No. 4 running back in the 2021 class and he is the future at the position. He may end up being the present. Tavierre Dunlap is also a freshman to watch this year.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions have five guys who can contribute, but finding time for all of them is going to be difficult. Noah Cain went down in the season opener last year. They scrambled with some talented young players in Caziah Holmes (51-227-2), Devyn Ford (67-274-3), and Keyvone Lee, who led the team with 438 yards rushing on 89 attempts (4.9 ypc). The problem with the young guys, however, is that they all did their damage against the Big Ten’s worst teams. Only one of the three has managed more than 36 yards on the ground against a ranked team in his career. Cain is expected to be back to full speed this season and the former 5-star prospect has a ton of upside. These are all talented recruits, but they need to step up. They also add Baylor transfer John Lovett, who has rushed for over 1,600 yards in his career.
4. Michigan State Spartans
Last year was a complete disaster for the Michigan State running backs. They failed to score a rushing touchdown and nobody could even manage 4 yards per carry. Jordon Simmons led the team with 219 yards rushing last year, including 72 in the season finale at Penn State. Veteran Connor Heyward went for 200 yards on 65 attempts. He has yet to recapture his 2018 form when he posted 778 yards from scrimmage. Elijah Collins went from 988 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2019 to 90 yards on 41 carries last year. He has since said contracting COVID really impacted his 2020 season. The Spartans also add former Auburn Tiger Harold Joiner (15-103 career) and Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker, who has rushed for 579 yards in each of his two years. There are some possibilities here, but it won’t be easy.
5. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers haven’t finished in the top half of the Big Ten in rushing since Kevin Wilson was the head coach. Junior Sampson James is the presumed starter, but he’s still more known for being a former Ohio State commit than anything he’s done at Indiana yet. That should change this year with an increased role in the offense. He has rushed for 371 yards in his first two years, never yet reaching 4 yards per carry. Tim Baldwin is the leading returning rusher from last year, having posted 141 yards on the ground last year. Unfortunately, 106 of those yards came against Maryland. David Ellis is a combo running back/receiver and is capable of good things. USC transfer Stephen Carr has rushed for over 1,000 yards in his career, but never topped 400 yards in any one year. There is talent, but the desire to run it is lacking.
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano said in the spring that he liked the depth at running back, and he might not be lying. It all starts with Isaih Pacheco, who has over 20 starts in his career. Pacheco has rushed for at least 500 yards in each of his three years. Yes, his average yards per carry has never been over five, but you can blame the lack of a passing game on much of that. Pacheco is a hard, sneaky runner who has six 100-yard rushing games to his credit. Aaron Young has started a couple of games in his career, but is barely averaging over 3 yards per carry over his first two years. Sophomore Jamier Wright-Collins played in every game last year on special teams. He is competing to be the backup. He was the No. 131 outside linebacker in the 2020 class. This room will rise and fall with Isaih Pacheco.
7. Maryland Terrapins
Maryland is apparently choosing between a top three of sophomores Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs and senior Tayon Fleet-Davis. The three of them combined for 48 carries and 173 yards rushing last year. Fleet-Davis does have over 600 yards rushing in his career, but has never been the No. 1 option. Boone was a 4-star running back out of Detroit. Jacobs was a 3-star running back out of Oklahoma who chose the Terps over an offer from Oklahoma State. Both players have potential and they are a reason for optimism, but Maryland hasn’t been able to run the ball all that well under Mike Locksley. Locksley also signed a handful of possibilities in the 2021 recruiting class, including 3-star, 260-pound Antwain Littleton, who has been nicknamed “Baby Bus.” There are unproven possibilities here.