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Tuesday Morning Brews (1/20/15)

What can the Big Ten do as an encore at the running back position?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Again

Well, that was lovely. Melvin Gordon, 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns. Tevin Coleman, 2,036 yards in 12 games. Zeke Elliott, 1,878 yards and a championship. David Cobb, 1,626 yards. Ameer Abdullah, 1,611 yards. Jeremy Langford, 1,522 yards. Justin Jackson, 1,187 yards in 12 games. Corey Clement, 949 yards in a reserve role. Akeem Hunt, 949 yards in 12 games.

But that doesn't matter anymore. Now you have to do it again.

***

One of the things that stands out about Justin Jackson is his work ethic. He studies film - a lot - which is something he did in high school, too. When he made it to Evanston, he knew he was in the mix for playing time but had no idea he'd end up as the starter by Week 3. By Week 5, he was running over Wisconsin with 162 yards.

"He plays lights-out," said guard Matt Frazier. "He doesn't have to think about it, and that's really rare with a freshman."

The speed at which he absorbs the game, just like his speed on the field, will help him take a step forward in 2015. Northwestern loses its starting center and left tackle, but more importantly it's put up consecutive seasons of poor line play. Too often, Jackson or Treyvon Green were resorting to breaking backfield tackles in order to turn "nickels into dimes and dimes into quarters," as Pat Fitzgerald put it. Even though Jackson has the decision-making and shiftiness to succeed behind a poor line - he showed as much this year, averaging 119 yards since that Wisconsin game - it's difficult to project a big step forward without some similar progress from his teammates. At some point, Jackson can only do so much.

Meanwhile, 140 miles north of Evanston, Corey Clement is facing different kinds of continuity and upheaval. On the one hand, there's hardly a running back in the Big Ten more likely to succeed thanks to the Badgers' assembly-line production of running backs. Clement packs a near 220-pound punch and a nasty streak, but it's his speed that stands out. In heavier touches this season, Clement's yards per carry dropped from 8.2 to a more realistic 6.5, but he showed he can move the ball single-handedly, if Wisconsin needs him to.

"I thought I was ready my freshman year, but there was a lot I had to learn," Clement said about filling in Gordon's shoes. "I got the opportunity to sit back and see what it takes to be a first-string running back. It's not easy at all."

Clement will be walking into a slightly different situation than what Gordon worked in. It's now Paul Chryst's show, and he'll be tasked with reviving a passing attack that fell on hard times. Will Chryst be able to find a couple athletic receivers on the outside, or a quarterback who can air it out? How much will they lean on the junior?

"It is one of the greatest opportunities I could ever ask for," Clement said. "I've had these years to develop into a true leader and I'm more than happy to be a leader for this team the next two years."

***

It's past midnight in AT&T Stadium, and Ohio State is celebrating the national championship. Darryl Baldwin, one of Ohio State's linemen, looked through the confetti over to Pat Elflein and Taylor Decker and double-checked, "Zeke got 240?" They nodded.

"A monster," Urban Meyer said in the postgame press conference. "He's the most underrated back in America."

Ezekiel Elliott entered the 2014 season as a great unknown, a question mark with the departure of Carlos Hyde. He will walk into 2015 as perhaps the face of the Big Ten, a superstar, having accomplished even more than what Hyde had managed in his four seasons there. On a list of the best in the country, Elliott is right at the top, perhaps behind Nick Chubb.

A few Big Ten teams are in the exact same position Ohio State was in last year - replacing a star, with a roster full of unknown talent. One of them is Minnesota, which loses a two-time 1,200-yard back in David Cobb. They'll be determined to find some replacement production, but who, and how good, is uncertain.

"It's going to be competitive," Cobb said about next year's guys. "I wouldn't be surprised if we see two or three backs playing and maybe getting 10, 11 carries a game. You always have Rodrick (Williams, Jr.) and Berkley (Edwards) here, and then you have Rodney (Smith, a '14 redshirt), he's making plays every day in practice. You have the freshmen coming in, but also Jeff Jones. It'll be interesting. It'll be competitive, and that's the best thing about it."

Edwards, a guy that Kill said would have to get some touches from David Cobb, had only 30 on the year, at 4.7 yards per carry. Rodrick Williams, at 5'11", 247 lbs., carried the ball even less, but got 5.0 yards a pop. David Cobb did just slightly better, 5.2 yards while carrying the ball a staggering 314 times, third-most in the country.

***

"From the beginning of the game, that's something we had to do," Jeremy Langford mused, "control the line of scrimmage. The offensive line did a great job of getting me through and getting me to the safeties. It's my job to make somebody miss or outrun somebody, and that's what I did today.''

When Langford talked about the season-ending win against Baylor, he actually sold his 27-carry, 162-yard performance a little short. Only once did Langford break off a run longer than 10 yards, and that happened on a critical 65-yard run early in the 1st quarter. But Dave Warner kept feeding him, and Michigan State dominated the clock, and Baylor's pass rush started going away, until there was next to nothing stopping Connor Cook at the end of the 4th.

"Look at the time that Connor Cook has to throw the football," Brian Griese pointed out in the middle of the game-winning drive, "Oakman's tired, they're not getting any pressure.... Baylor's got to dig deep. Defensive line - Oakman, Billings, they got to find some reserve of energy then get some pressure."

They did not, and Michigan State scored moments later.

Despite the flirting with tempo and passing, the Spartans showed it all starts with the running back. Dantonio and Warner have found the perfect balance in a way that Saban and Kiffin have not. MSU's options for next year - Madre London, Gerald Holmes, L.J. Scott - are all fast, physical, and tough. Crazy though it sounds, one of them might be better than Langford.

Another chance for the conference to produce a 1,000-yard rusher comes from a nearby town, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Wolverines barely produced a 500-yard rusher in 2014, De'Veon Smith, but the running backs ran only 298 times. They produced 5.3 yards a carry. Now, behind Tim Drevno and Ty Wheatley, two position coaches with NFL experience at the position, the ground game will get some better coaching as well as a new-found importance in the game plan.

That emphasis is reflected in the offensive coordinator doubling as the run-game coordinator. "We're going to try to move people off the ball and be a physical football team," Tim Drevno said after getting hired. "But you can't talk about it, you have to be about it... (The line) is a tremendous brotherhood in the room, and you'll get to a point where they take it over. But you've got to be demanding on them, and they've got to trust one another."

If Michigan is able to exert its will on the line of scrimmage next year, it will be one among several teams who can boast the same. Michigan's backfield is a little bigger and more physical than some others, but it still has speed, and with the catching abilities of Ty Isaac, a little versatility. If some of Michigan's 220-pound athletes can catch as well as run, it opens up some intriguing possibilities to move the chains.

***

On a 13-yard run up the middle, a Navy defender put his hat on Paul James' knee and caused an ACL tear, ending his season.

"Paul's not going to be an easy guy to replace. He's a very good football player," Kyle Flood said. "But we've got good players in that room. It's one of the deeper rooms on our football team and now Justin Goodwin, Desmon Peoples and our two freshmen (Josh Hicks, Robert Martin) are going to have a chance to carry the ball."

Those two freshmen, Hicks and Martin, would get an increasing amount of touches later in the year, culminating in a victory over North Carolina with 38 carries and 302 yards for the pair of them. Hicks led the way with 202.

"This is a childhood dream come true," Hicks said, the bowl game MVP trophy sitting in his locker. "It is just now hitting me what happened out there. Our O-line was just so good today - they were opening lanes, and all I had to do was hit them."

It was vindication for the Florida product after a rocky recruiting experience - complete with a bullying scandal, coach firings and a long losing streak. "I stuck around out of loyalty. They had faith in me. It doesn't matter who left the program, who stayed. When people left, others in the staff kept in touch. They were loyal throughout my entire high school career. That's why I stuck with them."

In short, running back seems set to reload, despite losing most of the big names at the position. There may not be anyone who challenges Barry Sanders' record, but if the conference can dig out some more depth, it could fare even better than 2014.

Of course, it's still a long way to go before the 2015 season kicks off, and things change quickly in football. Just ask new Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf - who was entering the NFL a year ago from Oregon State, turned around a quarterback who had just thrown 27 interceptions, and then burned some bridges with Tom Coughlin to return to Nebraska.

"It's hard to project the future and what will happen," he said about his return to the college ranks. "I try not to look too far ahead and really project on what can happen in the future. I tried to deal with the moment and go from there."

Langsdorf will inherit a crowded and talented backfield of his own, with Imani Cross and Terrell Newby the lead candidates to replace Ameer Abdullah. Both of them rushed for 100 yards in a game this season, with Newby getting 107 on 16 carries against Florida Atlantic, and the 230-pound Cross getting 109 on 22 against Illinois. Cross is the veteran with better numbers, but don't count out Newby.

"I'm telling you, man, that's just a little taste," Ameer Abdullah said after watching Newby, just a sophomore, roll against FAU. "He's going to keep getting his carries, he's going to keep getting his opportunities."

"I need to hurry up and get out of here before he takes my spot."

Hitting the Links Wins the Point of Attack

Ezekiel Elliott vs. Derrick Green

This one hurt to read.

Kyle Whittingham Gets Four-Year Extension at Utah

Now, the matter turns to who will be the coordinators - as both were swiped by opposing colleges.

Michigan: Heavy on NFL Experience

Michigan's staff is notably heavy on NFL experience, but it may just be one step ahead of a larger trend in college. College football is getting more serious and competitive, and blue-blood schools and new-bloods alike are looking for a competitive edge.

Jalin Barnett to Nebraska

An impressive get for Mike Riley's staff, especially considering Bo Pelini hadn't recruited him and this was all accomplished recently. It also underscores a way that Mike Riley could drastically improve on Bo Pelini's performance, and that is stepping up recruiting.

Washington State Cougars Hire Roy Manning

Manning will upgrade the Cougars' recruiting efforts dramatically, and also coach up the outside linebackers.

Gene Chizik Will DC at North Carolina

Chizik did some amazing things as a defensive coordinator in 2004 at Auburn and 2005 at Texas, with those teams going 26-0. His later Auburn defenses left something to be desired, however.

Top Five Priorities for Penn State in 2015

The Penn State defense will be an interesting unit to watch; James Franklin and Bob Shoop took a defense without a lot of depth and fashioned a top-10 pass unit and top-3 rush unit. The 2014 class was heavy on offensive playmakers, but 2015 brings a pair of mid-four-star DBs and two other blue chips on defense.

Northwestern 2015 Depth Chart: OffenseDefense

If the offensive line does indeed take a step back in 2015 - as the one writer suggests - Pat Fitzgerald will be out of a job, without question. The sacks and rushing yards numbers are terrible, but consider this - the passing yards per completion was 121st in the country. Siemian never had time to let his receivers get very far downfield.

Minor Transfers for Minnesota

This is getting linked as much for the comment section, which raises some interesting discussion about Minnesota's lack of defensive tackle depth and abilities in recruiting.

What NU Has To Do

The offensive line will be a priority for a number of Big Ten teams - Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa - but Northwestern's line isn't getting talked about as much. It comes up fifth on this list.

Corey Clement Highlights

It's hard to believe Clement is 217 pounds; he looks like a jitterbug with his speed and the quick twitch when diagnosing running lanes. He diagnoses plays very well, he attacks the hole with speed, and he acts as an enforcer when defenders do get a hold of him.