2019 Opponent Unit Ranking: Running Back

Image: Getty Images

Image: Getty Images

2019 Indiana Opponent Rankings – Running Back

Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)

Hoosier Huddle’s 2019 season preview coverage continues. The opponent rankings series is one of the staples of our look ahead at the season. Today’s focus shifts to the backfield and ranks the running back groups the Indiana Hoosiers defense will need to stop during the 2019 campaign. IU has some questions on the defensive line, specifically with the depth of the interior, and the run defense could be a key factor in determining whether or not the Hoosiers go bowling.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

I strongly considered putting Maryland at number one on this list but I believe in the talent of JK Dobbins. He was disappointed in his play in 2018 and spent his offseason trying to regain the form he had in his freshman campaign. I think the departure of Weber will allow Dobbins to thrive and look more like what we saw in 2017 than 2018. Redshirt freshman Master Teague would be starting at a lot of places and veteran Demario McCall is a steady veteran the coaching staff feels like they can trust. Dobbins is going to get the lions share of the carries though and I think he’ll have a monster season next to Justin Fields in the Buckeyes offense.

2. Maryland Terrapins

The Terrapins lost Ty Johnson but this is still a top-notch backfield with one terrific talent and lots of good supporting players. Redshirt sophomore Anthony McFarland had 1,034 yards and he averaged an astounding 7.9 yards per carry. Expect his workload to increase this season. His total yardage should go up but there’s no way his yards per carry stays at that ridiculous number. I’d expect his touchdown total (four in 2018) to increase as well. Javon Leake, Lorenzo Harrison, Tayon Fleet-Davis and Jake Funk provide strong depth to this group but McFarland is the headliner and he’s an absolute handful.

3. Penn State Nittany Lions

After having bell cow backs Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders (who was far better than he got credit for), Penn State’s staff professes that they are now looking forward to more of a committee approach. 5’9” sophomore Ricky Slade is expected to be the starter and end up with the most carries. The five-star recruit did not have a chance to show much in 2018 but he has the potential to be a star. The wealth will be spread around more though so don’t expect anyone to put up monster numbers in this backfield. Journey Brown is a blazer that can change a game with every touch and youngsters Noah Cain, Devyn Ford and C.J. Holmes provide high-quality depth. Penn State will need to rely on their running game early as they break in new quarterback Sean Clifford.

4. Michigan Wolverines

Chris Evans is suspended for the 2019 season and that leaves a bit of uncertainty for the Michigan running backs. They are very confident in true freshman Zach Charbonnet. He looks the part at 6’2” and more than 220 pounds and the Wolverine faithful believe he has the potential to be the best tailback in the Big Ten in time. Chris Turner is the home-run hitter of the group and they have a couple of converted players in Hassan Haskins and Ben VanSumeren are expected to play roles as well. VanSumeren is a former fullback that will see a lot of time as a blocker and short-yardage plugger.

5. Northwestern Wildcats

Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire early, hanging up his cleats just three games into the 2018 season with a spinal condition. The Wildcats turned to freshman Isaiah Bowser and he shocked everyone by rushing for 866 yards and six touchdowns. Bowser is a balanced runner that helps keep the Northwestern offense on pace and he should pair really well for new quarterback Hunter Johnson to give the Wildcats a stout attack. John Moten IV is a good and steady backup. Drake Anderson, a redshirt freshman, is the third back. If Bowser gets hurt, the Wildcats could be in trouble but I loved what I saw from him last season.

6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Scoff if you’d like but Raheem Blackshear is a very good player. Despite a limited passing game and an offensive line that is nowhere near the quality of the top teams in the league, Blackshear had 586 rushing yards and 367 receiving yards in 2018. He is only 192 pounds but he runs with power and is explosive when he gets to the outside. Add in sophomore Isaih Pacheco and Rutgers has a pretty good duo of running backs. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, they don’t have much beyond that pair.

7. Purdue Boilermakers

If we were ranking offensive lines, Purdue probably would be looking at 9th or 10th on this list. They have a lot of questions to answer along the line. The Boilermakers have inexperience at running back but Jeff Brohm is confident in the players he has stepping up. Tario Fuller was not 100% last season and the hope for the Boilermakers is that he is now ready to emerge. Zander Horvath is a redshirt sophomore that weighs in at 230 pounds so he brings more size than they had with D.J. Knox or Markell Jones did. Richie Worship is even bigger and if he can get back to health after a serious knee injury, Purdue should have a solid group of backs.

8. Michigan State Spartans

Despite a reputation for smashmouth football, the Michigan State Spartans have struggled recently to find any kind of physical presence on offense. The line has been subpar and the rushing game sunk to 115th nationally in 2018. LJ Scott was considered by many to be “ready for a breakout” prior to every season of his career but it never came (I’ll pat ourselves on the back here, we had him pegged) and Connor Heyward ended the season as their leading rusher with 529 yards. Michigan State needs consistency from the rushing game and they could also use an explosive element. Heyward returns for his junior campaign and he’ll likely split the load with sophomore La’Darius Jefferson. Anthony Williams Jr. enrolled early and was good in the spring so he could factor into the equation. For now, the Spartans have not earned the benefit of the doubt on offense and if their line does not improve, the running game will continue to suffer.

9. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon are both gone and the Cornhuskers are searching for some answers at this position. Ozigbo will be missed dearly after rushing for more than 1,000 yards and finishing the season very well. Maurice Washington is probably the best running back on the roster but it seems increasingly unlikely that he will suit up at all in 2019 as he deals with serious legal issues in California. This means Nebraska is going to be leaning entirely on newcomers. Dedrick Mills has the inside track to be the starter. Mills comes to Lincoln after a season at Garden City Community College, where he transferred to from Georgia Tech. He is a big back that will be expected to handle the load inside for Nebraska. Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins are true freshmen that could end up contributing but I am most interested to see if Wandale Robinson ends up in the mix at running back. If he does, Nebraska moves up my list. Robinson is a difference maker because of his explosive speed and shiftiness and if the true freshman gets significant touches as a running back, the Huskers could have a dangerous running game, outside of just allowing Adrian Martinez to burn teams with his legs.

10. UConn Huskies

The Connecticut Huskies had very little going for them in 2018. The defense was historically bad and the offense lacked explosion. There was one small bright spot though: their running backs. Kevin Mensah was potentially UConn’s best player and they have decent depth in transfer Art Thompkins and young players Zavier Scott and Dante Black. The running backs are relied on to catch the ball and provide a lot of carries as the Huskies are very inexperienced at wide receiver and quarterback. They’ll lean on this position group to try and slow games down and stay competitive.

11.  Ball State Cardinals

This ranking would have looked quite a bit different if James Gilbert had opted to return for his senior season. However, he transferred and the Cardinals are left with some question marks. They could have adequate answers as Malik Dunner and Caleb Huntley were both efficient in the work they received a season ago. In addition, they brought in Walter Fletcher from tiny Edinboro University. Fletcher ran for nearly 1,700 yards in 2018 but the competition level was very different from what he’ll see now. If Fletcher can be a positive addition, Ball State will probably have a better running game than I am projecting here.

12. Eastern Illinois Panthers

The backfield of the Eastern Illinois Panthers has been selected as the worst of the running back rooms IU will be facing in 2019. First year head coach Adam Cushing inherits a team that went 3-8 and they are starting over at running back. IU will likely see multiple personnel packages with lots of different formations, very similar to what we have seen from Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald (Cushing was with Northwestern for several seasons). Their top two running backs from 2018 have departed. Robert Columbus will be the starter for the Panthers and he had only 19 carries last season. The top rushing threat for EIU will likely be their quarterback (if it is Johnathan Brantley) and the Hoosiers should not struggle to shut down this running attack.