There’s a theme among Big Ten coaches in the preseason. To be successful, they you need at least two productive backs. The days of 30-plus carries per game are over. Workhorse guys like former Big Ten superstars Melvin Gordon and David Cobb are the exception, not the rule.

That means there are more battles for carries. True freshmen like L.J. can carve out a role, even in a crowded backfield like Michigan State’s, which might not use a feature tailback. It is, however, one of four teams in the Big Ten East with true running back battles in camp.


Jordan Howard vs. Devine Redding

The graduation of Tevin Coleman and his 2,036 rushing yards means that Indiana will replace its main offensive weapon. Jordan Howard, who transferred from UAB after the program collapsed, would appear to be the favorite to emerge as the three-down back. The 230-pound junior finished 14th in the country in rushing last year, ripping off 5.2 yards per carry. Sophomore Devine Redding, however, is the leading returning rusher on IU’s roster. He only racked up 118 yards but has impressed running backs coach Deland McCullough early in camp. He went so far as to call them the “strongest” group of backs he’s had in his five years. It’s worth noting that in three of Kevin Wilson’s four years at IU, two rushers have finished the season with triple-digit carries. Expect a lot of Howard, but Redding will find a regular role, as well.


Brandon Ross vs. Wes Brown

It’s not easy to establish consistency in the Big Ten if you can’t run the ball, which Maryland found out all too well last year. The nation’s 109th-ranked rushing attack does return the likes of Brandon Ross and Wes Brown, who will battle for the starting role. Neither back took the reins of the feature role last year with mobile C.J. Brown under center. Ross earned the “starting” job last year but registered fewer carries than Brown and only had two games of 10-plus touches. Brown is the bruiser while Ross has the speed, though that doesn’t mean it’ll be a thunder and lightning combination. Randy Edsall made it more of a priority to establish the ground game, and did say that training camp would determine who would earn the bulk of the carries. If Edsall does go with a feature back, it’ll have to provide a major lift with a first-year starter at quarterback.


Derrick Green vs. De’Veon Smith vs. Drake Johnson vs. Ty Isaac

There’s good news and bad news for the Michigan backfield. The good news is that Green, Smith and the injured Drake Johnson are all back after finishing the season as the Wolverines’ top three rushers. Throw in the addition of USC transfer Ty Isaac and the Wolverines won’t lack viable options in the backfield. The problem is that none of them have had sustained success as the No. 1 option. Green had a pair of 100-yard efforts before a broken collarbone ended his 2014 season early. Smith showed flashes — his 121-yard game against Northwestern helped the Wolverines avoid a complete collapse — but struggled to take the reins of the job. Isaac sat out 2014 because of transfer rules and Johnson is still recovering from a torn knee ligament. Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley said whoever gets the job will be because he flashes playmaking ability in fall camp.

Michigan State

Delton Williams vs. Gerald Holmes vs. Madre London vs. L.J. Scott 

There might not be a more coveted opening in the Big Ten than the starting gig in Michigan State’s backfield. Who wants to run behind Jack Allen and what might be the best offensive line in the country? Delton Williams, if not for off-field issues that resulted in a lengthy offseason suspension, would be the favorite. He was third string behind Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill last year, but showed off top end speed that could make him the next great Spartan back. Holmes and London, however, have both taken advantage of the increased reps. Connor Cook suggested that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use a three-back system. That doesn’t even include Scott, who impressed Mark Dantonio in his first week of pads. Whoever gets the majority of the carries will walk into one of the more ideal situations in college football.