Ye olde annual Big Ten Ratings have now moved past the quarterbacks, which you can find below, to the running backs. It’s always been a prominent position in the Big Ten, but some of that prominence is lacking this year. Maybe that just means we’re about to see some new guys emerge.
We will start out with the West Division this time because both of the Big Ten’s First-Team All-Conference tailbacks return from last year and they are both from the West. There are also some intriguing young backs who flashed potential last year. Overall, however, it’s a position with more questions than answers within the division.
1. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Mohamed Ibrahim was named the Big Ten Running Back of the Year last year after leading the Big Ten in rushing. He rushed for 1,076 yards in just seven games, averaging 153.7 yards rushing per game. He hit the century mark in all seven games last year. Ibrahim averaged 28.7 carries per game, which is a lot, especially during a pandemic. At some point will last year’s workload come back to haunt the Gophers? He also averaged over 20 carries per game as a redshirt freshman in 2018. Redshirt freshmen Cam Wiley and Treyson Potts got the bulk of the work in the spring, which is good. Minnesota needs them to help out so that Ibrahim will be able to play with his grandkids one day. They both averaged over 6 yards per carry last year, which is always acceptable. This is a good group that could be great.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
Tyler Goodson finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last year, averaging 95.3 yards on the ground per game as a sophomore. He was named a First-Team All-Big Ten selection by both the media and coaches last year. He’s led the Hawkeyes in rushing as both a freshman and sophomore. Despite leading the conference with two carries of 70+ yards last year, just four of his 277 career rushes have gone for more than 30 yards. His 5.3 yards per carry last year were okay, but they came out of chaos rather than consistency. He had three games under 4 yards per carry and two over 8 yards per carry. The potential is still pretty high here though. Ivory Kelly-Martin has been around forever but is coming off of a serious injury. One of redshirt freshmen Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams will likely need to help out.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin could take a nice step forward in the running game after falling way off last year thanks to the departure of all-timer Jonathan Taylor. Jalen Berger played in four games last year as a true freshman, leading the Badgers with 301 yards rushing. Unlike a lot of other running backs on this list who did damage against bad teams and didn’t show up against good teams, Berger was pretty consistent, carrying the ball exactly 15 times in each game and rushing for 87-93 yards in three of his four outings. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry but needs to increase that with some big hits in 2021. Fourth-year player Isaac Guerendo saw the field last year, but has just 12 career attempts. True freshman Jackson Acker is an in-state prospect who just popped a 10.8 100M at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds.
4. Illinois Fighting Illinois
Running back might be the strength of this Illinois football team, which is an incredibly relative term given the state of the program right now. The Illini return their top two runners in Chase Brown and Mike Epstein. Brown is a fourth-year guy who led the team with 540 yards (67.0 ypg) rushing last year, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He wasn’t a big-play guy, but did rush for 100 yards in each of Illinois’ two wins last year. Epstein rushed for 367 yards last year on 5.3 yards per carry. He tied for the Big Ten lead with two rushes of 50+ yards. He led the Illini in rushing as a freshman in 2017 with 346 yards. He’s suffered injuries throughout his career. Former Razorback and East Carolina Pirate Chase Hayden has transferred in as well. Each of these guys are 5-6 yard-per-carry guys, which should bode well for Illinois in 2021.
5. Northwestern Wildcats
The Wildcats return leading rusher Cam Porter, who rushed for 333 yards last year as a true freshman. He started the final two games of the year and closed strong by rushing for 301 yards in Northwestern’s final three games. That might not sound like much, but it was apparently enough to force veterans Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson into the transfer portal. But even in those three games by Porter, he still only averaged 4.1 yards per carry, which is below average for a good college running game. Redshirt sophomore Evan Hull averaged 8.3 yards per carry as a true freshman and 6.2 yards per carry last year. He’s done his damage against bad teams. Bowling Green graduate transfer Andrew Clair has over 1,900 career rushing yards. Freshman Anthony Tyus is also one to watch.
6. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson is the leading returning rusher, having torn up defenses for 30 yards on the ground last year. Nothing was settled at this position in the spring, though head coach Scott Frost was happy with what he saw from true freshman Gabe Ervin. Ervin, a 3-star prospect out of Buford, Georgia, may have been the standout in the spring. The other surprise was freshman walk-on Jaquez Yant, who is an intriguing prospect at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds. Frost has indicated he may not remain a walk-on much longer. The Huskers added USC transfer Markese Stepp, who arrived needing surgery on a foot injury, so he missed most of spring. He rushed for a smidge over 500 yards in his first three years with the Trojans. There is potential here but it’s all a complete guess.
7. Purdue Boilermakers
The Boilermakers had 17 rushes of 10 or more yards last year, four of 20 or more, and two of 30 or more yards. They had no carries of 40+ yards. By comparison, former Buckeye Trey Sermon had 27 rushes of 10+ yards, 11 rushes of 20+ yards, and six rushes of 30+ yards. Purdue returns their top two rushers from the last two years in Zander Horvath and King Dorue, which is fine, but the Boilers have finished dead last in rushing in the Big Ten the last two years. Horvath was a Third-Team All-B1G selection last year after rushing for 442 yards, which included 100-yard days against Iowa, Illinois, and Rutgers. Dorue is a veteran with 16 games and eight starts under his belt, but he has yet to average even 4 yards per carry in a season. Head coach Jeff Brohm has never been able to run the ball at Purdue and he may not care.
Rating the Big Ten
[Mohamed Ibrahim header photo courtesy of the Minnesota Athletic Dept.]