Best of the Big Ten: Running Backs

EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 22: Montee Ball #28 and James White #20 of the Wisconsin Badgers shake hands after Ball scored a touchdown in the first quarter of the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 22, 2011 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/Getty Images)
Positional Breakdown
* Defensive Line
* Linebackers
* Secondary
* WR / TE
* Running Backs
* Quarterbacks

Okay, now that we've all recovered from having to look at the Big Ten's cast of extremely underwhelming receivers (seriously, a top three of Jake Stoneburner, Keenan Davis, and Jared Abbrederis?), it's time to evaluate a position of considerably more promise, the Big Ten's running backs. Even after the transfer of Silas Redd to USC, there's still some elite running back talent in the conference, as both of the best two backs in the league decided to stay for their senior seasons. The position has been afflicted by the injury bug and the wrath of AIRBHG, but the top five backs or so all have the potential for outstanding seasons. Here they are:

10.) Mike Trumpy -- Northwestern

Two years ago, redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy emerged from a group of relatively unimpressive Northwestern running backs to lead the team in rushing and total a few 100-yard rushing performances before finishing the season injured. Last year, he tore his ACL against Illinois and only played in four games. He's tentatively slated to be Northwestern's starting running back this year, and even though Kain Colter is a more-than-capable runner, Trumpy will get his fair share of carries as well, even if he doesn't approach 1,000 yards on the season.

9.) Donovonn Young -- Illinois

The Illini have had some very good running backs lately -- Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure each had phenomenal seasons that propelled them to the NFL -- but last year, the Illini struggled at the position; quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase finished as the team's leading rusher. Jason Ford, Troy Pollard, and Donovonn Young each split carries and combined for over 1,500 yards rushing, so the departures of Ford and Pollard should give Young -- who was only a true freshman last year -- many more carries.

8.) Jordan Hall -- Ohio State

Hall would be much higher on this list if not for the injury he sustained in June when he apparently cut his foot on a piece of glass. The cut required surgery and the "best case scenario" would be a return in Week 3 of the season. Hall is projected to be cast in the "Percy Harvin" role in Urban Meyer's spread offense, and while he's not near the caliber of athlete that Harvin is, he's still probably Ohio State's best option at running back. It wouldn't be surprising to see Braxton Miller and Zach Boren get a ton of carries, so Hall's role is very much in question, especially due to the injury. The speedy back could be one of the better running backs in the conference, or he could fail to make much of an impact.

7.) Akeem Shavers -- Purdue

Starting running back Ralph Bolden tore his ACL against Indiana last year -- his third ACL tear in his Purdue career -- and with some off-season legal issues, it's looking rather unlikely that he makes it back and plays meaningful time for the Boilermakers. That leaves the door open for Shavers, who was the MVP of the Pizza Bowl last year with a 149-yard performance against Western Michigan. The senior hasn't had much opportunity yet, so with Bolden's absence, look for Shavers to step up and complement whoever wins the quarterback job.

6.) James White -- Wisconsin

Despite receiving much, much less hype than his award-winning teammate Montee Ball, the diminutive White has carved out a very successful career at Wisconsin thus far. He ran for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman (and won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award) as part of the one-two punch with Ball in 2010, and even though Ball took most of the carries last year, White still finished with 713 yards and six touchdowns. It's hard to project what his role will be as the backup, but he's certainly talented and able to replace Ball better than most could.

5.) Stephen Houston -- Indiana

It might be hard to justify an Indiana player's inclusion this high on the list, but Houston is probably the most underrated back in the conference. As a sophomore who transferred in from a junior college, Houston rushed for 802 yards and eight touchdowns in his first year on campus despite not starting for the whole season. He's the Hoosiers' feature back now, and played his best against tougher defenses in the last half of the year. Indiana needs a lot of help on offense, but with QB Tre Roberson, WR Kofi Hughes, and Houston all back, there's some continuity and promise there.

4.) Fitzgerald Toussaint -- Michigan

Toussaint emerged as the feature back last year and benefitted the most of anyone from Michigan's switch from the spread to a more pro-style attack -- he, along with Denard Robinson, rushed for over 1,000 yards. Toussaint didn't get much action during the first few games of the season, but was definitely one of the best running backs in the Big Ten don the stretch. He was recently pulled over and arrested for DUI, so it's unclear when his suspension will end, so it's hard to rank him vis-a-vis other backs, but based on pure talent and his production last year, Toussaint should be right up there with the best,

3.) Le'Veon Bell -- Michigan State

Le'Veon Bell could quite possibly be the best NFL prospect of any Big Ten running back: his combination of size (6'2" 238 lbs) and speed is incredibly impressive. Bell split carries with Edwin Baker last year, but still rushed for 948 yards on over five yards per carry and scored 13 touchdowns. The Spartans only finished with 4.1 yards per carry against Big Ten foes last year, so Bell's going to have to step it up a bit to help out State's rather unimpressive running game. With a more experienced offensive line, Bell should put up better numbers, but he'll have to take a ton of carries with the inexperience at quarterback and receiver.

2.) Rex Burkhead -- Nebraska

In almost any other year, Burkhead would likely top the list; he's a very solid running back who puts up good numbers (1,357 yards, 15 touchdowns), catches the ball well out of the backfield, is a good blocker, etc. Burkhead was named to the All-Big Ten First Team last year in his first year in the conference, and looks to build on that performance this year. Nebraska's backfield depth is a little shaky and the Huskers simply can't afford to have Burkhead go down -- as he's most of the offense for NU -- but Burkhead's been consistently productive over his career in Lincoln and that's unlikely to change.

1.) Montee Ball -- Wisconsin

Montee Ball was the best running back in the country last year, finished as a Heisman finalist, rushed for almost 2,000 yards, scored 33 rushing touchdowns, caught six more, and he even threw a touchdown to Russell Wilson last year. Ball is the best back the Big ten has seen in quite some while -- he's stocky but he has great vision, surprising speed, and knows how to run well behind one of the best lines in college football. Repeating last year's performance is probably impossible -- that was the best statistical season for any running back in a long, long time -- but Ball should once again be the best back in the country. He was injured in an attack a few weeks ago, but he and Bielema have assured that he'll be ready for the season.

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