Who will battle for B1G rushing title?
Talk about some tough shoes to fill.
Six of the nation’s top 19 rushers came from the Big Ten. Five of them are playing on Sundays. Only Ezekiel Elliott is back. The others will have new starters to lead the way. At places like Michigan State, that battle is still being decided, which makes it hard to project a back to finish among the league leaders in rushing. But just because this list lacks some of the familiar names Big Ten fans grew to know, doesn’t mean it lacks talent.
Here are the candidates to lead the Big Ten in rushing in 2015.
5. Rodrick Williams Jr., Minnesota
Nobody, not even Wisconsin, relied on the run more heavily than the Gophers did last year. Having a back like David Cobb certainly helps, but it’s just the way Jerry Kill does things. The 474 rushing attempts in Kill’s first year in Minneapolis — his quarterback was his leading rusher — was the fewest total recorded in his tenure. Rodrick Williams gets the pleasure of being the bell cow in that run-heavy system. Berkley Edwards and Rodney Williams will also get their touches, so to see Rodrick Williams approach 300 carries would be surprising. Still, there will be plenty of work for Kill’s new go-to option.
4. Jordan Howard, Indiana
Kevin Wilson has been cautious not to anoint the UAB transfer as his feature back. Every time Jordan Howard’s name comes up, so does Devine Redding’s. But as long as Howard is healthy enough to stay on the field, he’ll be the one busting the Tevin Coleman-like runs. Howard finished 14th in the country in rushing last year, and has the second most carries of all FBS backs since 2013. To put it simply, he can handle the workload. Coleman still ran wild behind IU’s line even without any passing attack last year. Howard, alongside Nate Sudfeld, could easily do the same.
3. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Jackson might be the Big Ten’s most underrated returning skill player. It was easy to forget about the freshman playing on a 5-7 team with all the attention surrounding the conference’s star running backs. But he and Elliott are the only returners that racked up 1,000 yards and double digit rushing touchdowns last year. Even more impressive, Jackson did his damage in a one-dimensional offense with a mid-season knee injury. On a unit that still doesn’t have a starting quarterback, Jackson is still the best option for Pat Fitzgerald’s offense to move the chains.
2. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
Here’s something to consider. Wisconsin has a reputation for turning talented high school running backs — not necessarily the blue chip recruits — into All-Americans. Clement came into Madison as a high school All-American. Why did he turn down Notre Dame to come to Wisconsin? Because they “have the nation’s biggest offensive line,” he said after his commitment. Here’s another something to consider. Clement nearly racked up 1,000 yards last year while sharing the backfield with the nation’s best running back. That number could easily double in 2015. Or more.
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
Few will argue that any tailback was better than Melvin Gordon in the regular season last year. In the postseason, there was no argument as to who the nation’s best player was. It was the guy who set rushing records in the Big Ten Championship, Sugar Bowl and College Football Playoff National Championship. People forget that Elliott had wrist surgery last August, which prevented him from using his go-to stiff-arm all season. This year, that’s back in his arsenal. A healthy Zeke will be surrounded by All-Americans every time he steps on to the field. Meyer won’t have his star toting the rock 36 times per game like he did against Oregon. But before the Buckeyes switch it into cruise control, Elliott will be the one taking off.