Written By Alex Compton
Welcome to the second annual Top Five series where the Hoosier Huddle writers will rank and breakdown the top five Indiana opponents every position group on the field (so we are only ranking the units whose teams are IU opponents in 2016). This week we shift our focus to the backfields.
Kicking off the countdown is a team I’d rather not talk about after the comeback they engineered in Memorial Stadium last season. In what turned out to be one of the most epic collapses I’ve seen in person, Rutgers ran right out of Bloomington with a 55-52 win, in which the Scarlet Knight backfield really had a field day. Rutgers returns a majority of that backfield that combined for just over 2,000 yards a year ago.
While only two thirds of the major producers will be returning to the field this season, those two figure to be very productive yet again. Juniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks are back, and they will have to combine to make up for the over 500 yards that Paul James leaves behind. With 1,488 yards between the two of them last year, there is no doubt that they can produce. If these two can stay on the field, they should be able to eat up 30 more carries a piece and get close to 2,000 yards combined. This would give first year head man Chris Ash a nice safety blanket, and would allow for their new quarterback to get settled in as well, should incumbent starter Chris Laviano lose his starting job.
Rutgers could easily slide up or down this list based on the scheme Coach Ash implements, but for right now, I have them comfortably at #5, just ahead of Florida International and Ohio State.
Next up on the list is Michigan, who many are taking as their pick to win the conference at season’s end. With one of the best defenses in the nation returning much of their production from last season, the challenge will be for the Wolverines to score just enough points to rack up wins. The major storyline for the faithful in Ann Arbor right now is the quarterback battle, as senior Jake Rudock has graduated and is now off to the NFL. That leaves the starting spot up for grabs, which is probably a good thing for the running backs. With quarterbacks settling in early in the season, it is often a time for backs to get more carries to alleviate some of the pressure the signal callers may be feeling. This will be no different for UM, and the depth they possess should allow them to handle a big workload with no problems.
Michigan doesn’t necessarily have a game-breaking back, but they do have three guys that will split carries and just wear down a defense over 60 minutes. A trio of seniors will be handling the duties in the backfield, and those three are Ty Isaac, Drake Johnson, and De’Veon Smith. Isaac is a bruiser, standing at 6’3” and 228lbs. He finally appears ready to make a larger impact, after looking more comfortable in the offense after transferring from USC two seasons ago. Smith had a bulk of the carries last season, and just didn’t stop producing. He is a bulldog, and seems to get better as the game rolls on. With a great knack for always falling forward and protecting the rock, Smith is likely the man Harbaugh and his offensive staff will trust in late game situations. Last, but certainly not least, is Drake Johnson. He is regarded around the program as one of the hardest working guys on the team, and will also be in the mix for a good amount of carries in the fall. He has battled back from two ACL tears, and is back to full strength after being run over by a forklift during a workout with the track team in April. Coach Harbaugh said the accident would have “killed a lesser man”; so I can’t imagine he’ll be afraid to take on any linebackers once the season gets rolling. Three proven players, who just so happen to be seniors? Yeah, Michigan should have a good ground attack this season.
The term “superback” may be overused by today’s media, but Justin Jackson from NU really deserves that label. The Big Ten’s version of Christian McCaffrey ran for just under 1,500 yards, caught over 20 passes, and scored 5 times last year. With a running quarterback in Clayton Thorson taking away some of Jackson’s carries, his rushing numbers could have easily been up near 2,000 yards.
Besides the numbers themselves, the other really incredible aspect of Jackson’s game is his versatility. Jackson takes handoffs, quick pitches, jet sweeps from the slot, and even plays quarterback in the wildcat formation. When he plays receiver, he lines up in the slot, can catch it out of the backfield, and routinely splits out wide. Whether or not he is even targeted on a given play, the defense has no choice but to respect his ability because of the gift he has to make plays all over the field. This versatility has made him one of the best players in the B1G, and is a true threat to score every time he gets a touch.
Northwestern isn’t as deep as some of the other teams in the league, but Senior running back Warren Long has proven that he can give Jackson a breather without the production dropping off too much. Last season, Long rushed for 338 yards and 5 scores and also played receiver, defense and special teams. He is another versatile player for the Cats, and his support of Jackson gives the Wildcats an impressive combo.
2. Penn State
The James Franklin era is well underway in Happy Valley, and the talent that he promised is finally starting to arise. Not only does he have a young star in Saquon Barkley back for year two, but Franklin & co also have the top running back recruit in the nation in Miles Sanders, who is readying to start his collegiate career at PSU this fall. With a star-studded 1-2 punch, the Penn State backfield has the chance to be as good as any in the nation.
Before we delve into the hype that surrounds Miles Sanders, let’s first talk about the established and returning back. Saquon Barkley had a monstrous freshman season, which saw him amass 1,145 yards and 7 scores on just 182 carries in only 11 of PSU’s 13 games. Even while splitting carries with a four year back in Akeel Lynch, Barkley was as good as advertised heading into the season. In year two, Lynch will likely diversify his game by catching more passes (20 in 2015), and improving as a pass protector. If he can do both of these things, it will prove he is ready to lead the offense and teach incoming freshman Miles Sanders just what it takes to be a successful back in the Big Ten.
The other half of the backfield for Penn State is the half that you just can’t seem to stop hearing about. Miles Sanders has yet to play a snap of college football, but there are some good reasons for all of the hype. First off, there isn’t a team in the country that didn’t want this kid on their team. If he didn’t have an offer, it was probably just because they didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. Second, he has every tool required to make him a collegiate superstar. He has the speed, strength, football IQ, etc., and even the superstar “it factor” that some guys just seem to have. If I had to compare him to a recent college football back, I would probably point you to Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, who torched just about everyone in the country for the past three seasons. If Sanders can take the advice of his coaches and teammates, there is nothing stopping him from also rushing for 1,000 yards in his first season of college football.
1. Michigan State
In a conference that had some premier tailbacks last season, true freshman LJ Scott rarely got the love he deserved. Those who followed the conference closely however, would be able to tell you that he was easily the leagues’ third best back behind Ezekiel Elliot and our own Jordan Howard. Splitting carries with two other backs last season, Scott was able to put up an impressive line of 719 yards on 146 carries to go along with a whopping 11 scores. He is my clear favorite to end up on the first team at the end of the season, as he should see an increased workload in year two.
While he should get more carries due to his impressive performance last year, he won’t be the only back that Coach Dantonio will be able to hand the ball off to. He will be able to use a three-headed monster again this year, with Scott as the obvious leader. Behind him, Sparty will have Madre London and Gerald Holmes, who both put up nice numbers a year ago. They combined for 1,081 yards and 11 scores on 229 carries, and should be in line for a similar workload this coming season. With Connor Cook on to the NFL, the first part of the season should come with more carries for the backs as likely starter Tyler O’Connor settles in to his new role. This should allow for more carries between the three of them, while allowing Scott especially to have a shot at over 1,000 yards as a sophomore.
The combination of having depth and a stud #1 puts Michigan State just above the dynamic duo in Happy Valley, and brings this countdown to a close.
Feel free to drop your own top five in the comments below!