Big Shoes to Fill for Big Ten Running Backs

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon

Big Shoes to Fill for Big Ten Running Backs

The Big Ten lost five running backs who rushed for at least 1,500 yards in 2014. Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, David Cobb, Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford combined to gain 9,382 yards on the ground. The first five rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft saw each of those backs selected with Gordon going in the first, Abdullah in the second, Coleman in third, Langford in the fourth and Cobb in the fifth. There are quality backs returning, most notably Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State and Justin Jackson at Northwestern, but there are also a lot of yards to be had by fresh faces and a lot of talent to be replaced.


Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Gordon led the Big Ten with 2,587 rushing yards and 29 rushing touchdowns. While Wisconsin churns out running backs year after year, Gordon was a special back. Next in line though is Corey Clement and he will keep the strong Badger back tradition going. Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore behind Gordon. He is certainly the feature back in 2015, but the bigger question at Wisconsin is who is going to fill the secondary back role that Clement filled last season. Gordon ran the ball 343 times and Clement tallied 147 carries. There are carries to go around for junior Dare Ogunbowale, redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal and true freshman Jordan Stevenson.


Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Like Wisconsin, Indiana has an obvious replacement for Tevin Coleman. Coleman broke the 2,000 yard barrier on a team that struggled to throw the ball after an injury sidelined quarterback Nate Sudfeld. Even when the opposition knew Coleman was going to get the ball, they could not stop him. Jordan Howard lacks Coleman’s explosiveness, but he is a proven Division I rusher. Howard spent last season at UAB where he rushed for 1,587 yards. He was one of the few bright spots for UAB before they dropped their football program, only to reinstate it later. Big Ten defenses are something Howard did not see at UAB and asking him to repeat his performance of last season is asking too much. However, Howard will not have to carry the offense in 2015. Coach Kevin Wilson wants to throw the ball and he can do just that with a healthy quarterback. That should open up more space for Howard to operate.


David Cobb, Minnesota
Of all the 1,500 yard rushers last season, the biggest surprise was David Cobb. Minnesota is going to run the ball, but few expected Cobb to get such a big chunk of the carries. Because he did carry the ball 314 times, it leaves little experience at running for the Golden Gophers this season. With 30, Berkley Edwards is the returning back with the most totes in 2014. The 5-9, 192 pound sophomore has high expectations, but he certainly cannot replace all of Cobb’s production. Senior Rodrick Williams is the big, bruising back and has paid his dues over the last three seasons. Even if somebody else gets a bulk of the carries, Williams will be a nice short yardage option. Perhaps the best combination of size and speed is redshirt freshman Rodney Smith, but he will not get the opportunity to show it off if he is still learning the offense.


Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Nebraska is going to look different this year and it is not just because Abdullah and his 1,611 yards are gone. The Cornhuskers fired Coach Bo Pelini and went a different direction with their offense by bringing in former Oregon State head man Mike Riley. Riley’s offense relies on short, quick passing that spreads out the opposing defense. Nebraska is not going to have a workhorse, between the tackles type of running back anymore. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are the backups from a year ago who are looking to fill the new role. Cross, who rushed for 384 yards and five touchdowns in 2014, is a big bruising back and not a great fit with the new scheme. Newby was not quite as productive as Cross last season (297 yards, 5 touchdowns), but he is a quick back who will get the first crack at filling Abdullah’s shoes.


Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
Michigan State has the least experience at running back, but also the most potential for a breakout back. The Spartans traditionally rely heavily on one rusher, like Langford last year when he rushed for 1,522 yards on 276 carries. Coach Mark Dantonio was in a similar situation two years when he shuffled through a few backs before Langford became the clear number one a few weeks into the season. Heading into the 2015 campaign, Madre London, Gerald Holmes, Delton Williams and LJ Scott are the prime candidates. Williams has the most experience, rushing for 238 yards in 2013 and 316 yards in 2014, but he is coming back from suspension and will get a late start to fall camp. He needs to work his way back into the conversation and may be too far behind the rest of the backs because of the late start.