— Quarterback rooms are hard to judge because some teams have a clear starter and others are going through battles. But running backs? That’s where depth is huge. Here are the tiers of the Big Ten in running backs.
Tier 1: The Elites – Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin
All three of these teams return a ton of production and are set up for the future at the position. Ohio State’s Treyveon Henderson was the best true freshman running back in the country last season, and the only guy who could push him for that claim is Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen. Both of those programs have to feel great about where they stand, and both also have quality depth with youngsters Miyan Williams and Evan Pryor at Ohio State and veteran Chez Mellusi at Wisconsin.
The Wolverines lost one-half of their outstanding one-two punch from last year with Hassan Haskins now in the NFL, but they still have Blake Corum, who exploded onto the scene last year, as well as redshirt freshman Donovan Edwards, who, by all accounts, had a tremendous spring and is ready to make the leap.
Tier 2: Good but not Great: Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan State, Illinois, Northwestern
Coming into the offseason, you could argue that the Gophers had the deepest running back room in the country with four guys who could make some claim to being the starter. Two of those players – Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas – are now playing at Oregon and Kansas, respectively, but they’ve still got Mo Ibrahim, who was outstanding before an injury cut his season short, as well as Trey Potts who has shown flashes.
Penn State and Michigan State do not have backs that are as proven as Minnesota, but they have as much upside as anyone. Penn State makes tier 2 simply as a bet on Nicholas Singleton. He’s going to be special for the Nittany Lions, even as a true freshman. He’s that good. Meanwhile, Mel Tucker is hoping to strike gold again with a transfer running back, this time with former Badger Jalen Berger. The former top-100 recruit fell out of favor with coaches in Madison but still possesses outstanding ability in the open field and is an asset as a pass-catcher as well.
Illinois brings back their top three backs from last season, including Chase Brown who broke 1,000 yards as a sophomore in 2021, as well as Josh McCray and Reggie Love. Love was a big time get for Bret Bielema as a four-star back in the 2020 class, and could very well be the future of the position in Champagne.
Tier 3: That’ll Do: Northwestern, Maryland, Rutgers, Iowa
Like Illinois, Northwestern also brings back a 1,000 rusher in Evan Hull as well as his primary backup Andrew Clair. The Wildcats aren’t particularly deep though at the position, so an injury to their bell-cow Hull could spell disaster for Pat Fitzgerald’s crew. Maryland has two solid but unspectacular options in their backfield in Challen Faamatau and Colby McDonald, but they’ll definitely miss the veteran presence of the recently graduated Tayon Fleet-Davis.
Rutgers’ Kyle Monangai and Aaron Young both struggled to get anything consistent going last season, and both averaged under 4 yards per carry while backing up Isaih Pacheco. However, that in-game experience will help them as Greg Schiano continues to rebuild this program. Iowa always has a seemingly excellent rushing attack, and despite the losses of both Tyler Goodson and Ivory Kelly-Martin, you know as well as I do that they’ll have a solid if unspectacular ground game in 2022. Gavin Williams and LeShon Williams should get the first crack at the starting job, but don’t be surprised if four-star true freshman Kaleb Johnson sees a fair bit of action. The Hawkeyes’ flipped him from Cal late in the process and he could be the next big thing in Iowa City.
Tier 4: Cross your fingers and pray: Indiana, Purdue, Nebraska
Purdue finished 2021 dead last in yards per carry in the entire country. So even though leading rusher King Doerue returns, it’s not like it’s really moving the needle for one of the worst rushing attacks in the country. Indiana, on the other hand, has effectively zero experience returning from last season – 22 carries for 74 yards, and 0 TD’s between the only two backs on the roster who saw any time last year. They’ve brought in transfer Shaun Shivers from Auburn, but even he was buried on the depth chart on the Plains.
As the Cornhuskers continue their rebuild, they’re going to need to get more out of the running back position than they did last season. They’re hoping that Florida State transfer Anthony Grant can help their young position group that is currently headed by Gabe Ervin and Rahmir Johnson, both of whom have some game experience but have not shown that they are ready to be every-down backs.