Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Any list or ranking done by a human is bound to be somewhat subjective. While I may have a strong opinion about one player being better than another, many of the players (and groups of players) on this list have very little to separate them from the man placed a spot higher or lower than they are. There are also many factors that greatly impact the way we perceive a player. Things like offensive line, offensive system and the quality of the skill position players around him are all critical factors that matter greatly to how successful the individual can be. That’s why football is often considered the ultimate team sport. Taking those things into consideration, one of our regular offseason features at the Hoosier Huddle is to rank Indiana’s opponents by each critical position group. Keep in mind, I am ranking the running back group as a whole, not just one individual running back (in reality, the offensive lines are inherently considered as well). This is my list and these are my opinions, we’d love to hear what you think so please share your thoughts in the comments section!
1. Ohio State – J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber
The Buckeyes have won at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons and a part of that success has been a consistent running game. That certainly won’t change this season as they return one of the better 1-2 punches in the nation in sophomore J.K. Dobbins and junior Mike Weber. Antonio Williams and true freshman Master Teague will both push for playing time as well. The offensive line returns only two starters and the Buckeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback so they will need to rely on the run game, particularly early in the season. The Hoosiers battle the Buckeyes in early October and I imagine Dwayne Haskins will be starting at quarterback and likely be in rhythm by that time. It’s very possible the Hoosiers young defense is tasked with containing a top ten rushing attack when they visit Columbus. While I think Wisconsin is the best rushing team in the league, Ohio State is an easy choice at number two (and number one on this particular list).
2. Michigan – Karan Higdon and Chris Evans
I don’t love Michigan’s offensive line but they do return three starters and new offensive line coach Ed Warriner is one of the best in the business. He recently said that his first UM line “can be a very solid Big Ten offensive line”. If that ends up being the case, this will be a really strong running game. Karan Higdon was outstanding down the stretch of the 2017 season and he is back for his senior season. Junior Chris Evans averaged more than five yards per carry as a sophomore. Fullback Ben Mason is an asset as well. There are depth questions but Harbaugh’s teams typically run the ball well and I like the additions of Warriner and former Florida head coach Jim McElwain to the staff. Higdon absolutely murdered the Hoosiers in 2017, rushing for 200 yards and eight yards per carry with three touchdowns as the Wolverines squeaked by IU (again) 27-20 in overtime. Michigan is likely to have one of the better defenses in the country and the two play in mid-November in Ann Arbor so IU’s defense will need to do a better job of containing the running game this go around.
3. Maryland – Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison
Ty Johnson is incredibly talented and Lorenzo Harrison is a very capable and steady second back. Throw in the running ability of Tyrell Pigrome at quarterback (or whatever position he ends up at) and Maryland has a lot of explosive potential in the backfield. Johnson had the fourth-most all-purpose yards in school history in 2017 (1,592). Harrison runs hard and keeps Johnson fresh and Jake Funk averaged 5.4 yards per carry, primarily on third downs. The offensive line is the biggest issue with the running game but they do return four linemen.
4. Penn State – Miles Sanders, Mark Allen and others
The Nittany Lions have to replace a whopping 32% of their all-purpose yards as Saquon Barkley is now in the NFL. However, the cupboard is not bare as James Franklin continues to recruit very well. He believes his running backs, “are going to surprise some people in what they can do,” he told Athlon Sports. The group is led by former five-star recruit Miles Sanders. He’s been stuck behind Barkley but has an average of 6.7 yards in his very limited work. Mark Allen likely starts the season as his backup but look for redshirt freshman Journey Brown and true freshman Ricky Slade to getting quite a bit of work. The offensive line returns four starters and Trace McSorley will lead the way and keep teams from keying in on the ground game. The pieces look great but they were only 59th in the country in rushing last season and now have to replace an all-time great in Barkley.
5. Michigan State – LJ Scott and Connor Heyward
A senior that has seen his share of trouble off the field, LJ Scott has led the Spartans in rushing for three straight seasons. Many will argue that Michigan State should be third or fourth on this list and that could end up being correct but I don’t see Scott as a top player in the Big Ten. He’s above average and perfectly solid but I don’t think he’s great. Fumbling problems have been a recurring issue and he is still yet to break 1,000 yards in a season. Madre London and Gerald Holmes are both gone so the backup appears to be Connor Heyward, who has only three carries in his young career.
6. Purdue – Markell Jones, Tario Fuller, D.J. Knox and Richie Worship
The Boilermakers are deep at running back but I don’t feel any of the four backs are that much above average. They are each solid and combine to form a decent group. Jones and Fuller are the complete backs, Knox is only 5’7” but he runs hard and catches it well. Worship is the hammer back that operates essentially as a fullback. Injuries last season decimated the position by the end of the season.
7. Minnesota – Rodney Smith
The Golden Gophers have not had a great offseason. They lost potential starting quarterback Vic Viramontes as he transferred back to junior college. Early in spring practice, running back Shannon Brooks was lost for the season with an injury. That leaves them with one really good back in Rodney Smith and a whole bunch of question marks elsewhere. True freshman Nolan Edmonds is well-regarded but if Smith gets injured, Minnesota is in a world of hurt on offense. IU’s Friday night trip to Minnesota is a decent chance to steal a Big Ten road win.
8. Iowa – Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin
There aren’t many tangible reasons to think Iowa will have a great running game in 2018. They lost their top two rushers and their starting fullback. However, the Hawkeyes have earned some benefit of the doubt as they bring back three starters on the offensive line and have a proven record of success turning out solid running backs. Toren Young is a power back and Kelly-Martin averaged 9.2 yards per carry in limited work. The Hoosiers have not faced off against the Hawkeyes for a little bit but they will renew acquaintances on October 13 for Homecoming in Bloomington.
9. Florida International – Napoleon Maxwell, D’Vonte Price and Shawndarrius Phillips
The Indiana Hoosiers kick-off the season with a tricky road trip to Miami to take on the improving Florida International Panthers. IU has beaten the Panthers each of their previous two contests but those games have not been walks in the park and this one likely won’t be either. Top running back Alex Gardner is gone but FIU has a number of decent options returning. The best of the bunch is Napoleon Maxwell, a senior that averaged nearly six yards per carry. FIU has some speed and depth and this will be a strong opening test for the revamped Hoosier defense.
10. Ball State Cardinals – James Gilbert, Caleb Huntley and Malik Dunner
The Cardinals had to deal with terrible injury problems last season as quarterback Riley Neal, running back James Gilbert and a couple of offensive linemen all were lost. Gilbert is talented enough to merit position higher on this list and both Caleb Huntley and Malik Dunner have proven capable when called upon. Ball State’s coaches will attempt to get these guys on the field together and create some advantageous matchups for themselves. I don’t trust the offensive line to be able to hold up against IU’s front but if BSU stays healthy this season, I happen to think this trio of running backs can jump Ball State towards six wins this season.
11. Virginia – Jordan Ellis and PK Kier
The Hoosiers home opener is a clash against the ACC’s Virginia Cavaliers. IU shut down UVA’s ground game in a 34-17 victory in Charlottesville last season, holding starter Jordan Ellis to 44 yards on 14 carries. The senior back ended the 2017 season with 836 yards and six touchdowns and the Cavaliers had added a mobile threat at quarterback in Bryce Perkins. The Hoosiers young defense will hope to take advantage of Virginia’s weakest position group: the offensive line.
12. Rutgers – Jonathan Hillman and Raheem Blackshear
The Scarlet Knights lost both Gus Edwards and Robert Martin and must now rely on another graduate transfer. This time, it’s Jonathan Hillman, a backup at Boston College that had 638 yards in the ACC. Blackshear is a promising sophomore that may take over the job soon. IU blanked Rutgers in a 41-0 domination late last season and they held the Scarlet Knights to only 87 yards rushing on 33 carries. They’ll be hoping for more of the same on September 29.
The Hoosiers face a number of tough rushing attacks in 2018 and the young defense that must replace a few top-notch contributors will be tested often.