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Ranking the Big Ten Positional Groups: Offensive Backfield

by Sal Soothsayer | Posted on Monday, July 7th, 2014

The dog days of summer are setting in and we are now weeks, not months, away from the start of the collegiate football season.  For college football fans, summer is a time for debate, optimism and lists.  This week long series on Big Ten positional groups will help familiarize Rutgers faithful with their new conference mates, and assist the cagey vets of the Big Ten in learning about their two neighbors to the East.


Monday – Offensive Backfield
Tuesday – Receivers
Wednesday – Offensive Line
Thursday – Defensive Line
Friday – Linebackers
Saturday – Secondary
Sunday – The Coaches


When you think of positional groups this season in the Big Ten it should start with the defensive line.  Although that group has received much of the accolades by the pundits this preseason, the most overlooked group in 2014 has been the offensive backfield.  This year the Big Ten will have an abundance of talent at the quarterback and running back position.

Gary Nova (L.) and Paul James are the expected starters in Rutgers backfield. (Mandatory Credit: Jim O)

Gary Nova (L.) and Paul James are the expected starters in Rutgers backfield. (Mandatory Credit: Jim O)

The best units from top to bottom…

1. Michigan State:  This is the most balanced group headed by two stars, junior quarterback Connor Cook and senior running back Jeremy Langford.  Last season, Cook threw for 2,755 yards and 22 TDs against only six INTs.  That doesn’t tell the whole story as this is the Big Ten QB who is most dangerous in the biggest spot.   The consensus pre-season third best running back in the conference, Langford last year ran for 1,492 yards and 18 TDs giving Sparty the most balanced backfield tandem in the Big Ten.

2. Indiana:  This unit is paced by the two-headed monster at quarterback that the Hoosiers employed to perfection last season.  The dual-threat option of Tre Robinson and classic drop-back quarterback Nate Sudfeld combined for over 3,500 yards through the air, 400 yards on the ground and accounted for over 40 touchdowns.  The quarterback play sometimes overshadowed the strong play of junior Tevin Coleman who last year finished with 958 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 7.3 yards per carry.

3. Wisconsin:  The running backs carry the load here and the Badgers have one of the best in the nation in Melvin Gordon (1,609 yards and 7.8 ypc).  Gordon will be supported by sophomore Corey Clement who ran for over 500 yards last year as Wisconsin’s third back and has the potential to be the break-out player of the year in the conference.  Experienced junior Joel Stave threw for 2,494 and 22 TDs while completing 61.9% of his passes. Tanner McEvoy is a tremendous athlete who has played in the secondary and gives Wisconsin the option of a different look at QB.

4. Penn State:  Although this unit is also noted for it’s balance but is clearly spearheaded by quarterback Christian Hackenberg who put together a tremendous freshman year (2,955 yards and 20 TDs) and while he will miss his security blanket in WR Allen Robinson he will have a three-headed RB stable with which to work with this year.  Leading the RBs is senior Zach Zwinak who ran for 989 yards and 12 TDs last year after putting up 1,000 and six TDs his sophomore year.  Senior Bill Belton ran for 803 yards on 5.1 ypc and junior Akeel Lynch went for 358 on 6.0 ypc giving the Penn State backfield impressive depth.

5. Ohio State:  Paced by Heisman hopeful in do-everything quarterback Braxton Miller, this unit could climb to the top spot by season’s end if promising sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliot can live up to potential.  Although missing a few games last year, Miller still threw for 2,094 and 24 TDs while rushing for 1,068 and 12 more TDs.  In limited duty last year Elliot ran for 262 yards on 8.7 ypc.

6. Nebraska:  Ameer Abdullah was recently named to the Paul Hornung watch list and led the Big Ten in rushing last year (281-1690-9) and has a strong supporting cast behind him lead by Imani Cross who scored ten rushing touchdowns himself last season.  This unit has the capability of moving up even further on the list if sophomore QB Tommy Armstrong can build on last season where he threw for just under 1,000 yards and ran for 200 more in limited duty as a true freshman.

7. Iowa:  This unit’s strength is in depth as three running backs who accounted for over 400 yards on the ground each last season return for Iowa.   Junior signal caller Jake Rudock leads the deep Hawkeye backfield as his dual-threat ability accounted for 23 TDs last year (five on the ground) and over 2,500 yards of total offense.  The Iowa running backs are led by senior Mark Weisman (226-975-8) and also features  junior Jordan Canzeri (481 yards, 6.5 ypc) and senior Damon Bullock (467 yards, 4.0 ypc).

8. Rutgers: If this group is to rise any higher it will be a result of senior QB Gary Nova improving under the tutelage of new Offensive Coordinator Ralph Friedgen.  Nova has accounted for 6,357 passing yards in his three years at Rutgers but was benched for the final three games in the 2013 campaign.  It was feast or famine with Nova in 2013 as he had three games with at least 346 yards and three TDs and four other games where his INTs exceeded his TDs.  Running back Paul James leads a deep group as the oft-injured James accounted for 881 yards and nine TDs while only appearing in nine games.  Backups Justin Goodwin (521), Savon Huggins (286), and Desmon Peoples are all capable Big Ten backs.

9. Northwestern: The Wildcats are hoping senior running back Venrick Mark can shake off the injury bug that limited him to only three games in 2013.  In 2012 Mark racked up 1,366 and 12 TDs to the talent is evident.  Mack’s ability has been recognized nationally as he was recently named to the Paul Hornung Watch List.  Supporting Mark will be fellow senior Treyvon Green who rushed for 736 yards and eight TDs in the lead role last season.  Senior QB Trevor Siemian will go under center full time this year.  Last year Siemian threw for 2,149 but Northwestern will need his 11-9 TD-INT ratio to improve this year.

10. Minnesota:  After splitting time last year, sophomore QB Mitch Leidner will take control of the offense this year.  In 2013 he threw of 619 yards and was second on the team in rushing as he added 407 yards and 7 TDs on the ground.  Senior RB David Cobb ran for 1,202 yards last year topping the century mark on six different occasions highlighted by a 188 yard performance at Indiana.

11. Michigan: Quarterback Devin Gardner has a world of upside but has proven to be mistake prone.  Gardner threw for 2,960 and 21 TDs and also ran for 483 and 11 more TDs in 2013.  His consistency will be critical.  Gardner might be the team’s best option on the ground as Derrick Green (270 yards) and De’Veon Smith (117) are an inexperienced group.    The Michigan player with the most explosive offensive potential is lining up in the secondary this year in highly-touted true freshman Jabrill Peppers.  He’s not going to play it, but Peppers best collegiate position is running back.

12. Maryland: The Quarterback makes an offense go and that is certainly the case in College Park where the team will be led by sixth year senior QB C.J. Brown.  In eleven  games last year Brown threw for 2,242 and 13TDs against seven INTs.  Brown has also rushed for over 500 yards in each of his last two seasons.  Running back looks to be headed by junior Brandon Ross who led the Terps with 776 yards on the ground last year.

13. Illinois:  Two years ago Wes Lunt won the starting Quarterback job at Oklahoma State only to lose it after injury.  The transfer is eligible this season and it will be interesting to see if he can shake off the rust and put together a solid campaign this upcoming fall.  Junior Josh Ferguson returns at RB for the Illini.  In 2013 Ferguson ran for 779 and was second on the team in receptions with 50.

14. Purdue: Sophomore Danny Etling should be the starter for Purdue this upcoming season.  Last year as a true freshman he threw for 1,690 and 10 TDs against seven INTs.  Akeem Hunt (123-468) is the only running back who ran for over 160 yards last season and was named to the Paul Hornung Watch List.


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