The Enemy, Ranked: Running Backs Comment Count

Ace August 24th, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Previously: Quarterbacks

No surprise at #1. [Bryan Fuller]

This is the second in a series ranking the position groups of Michigan's 2017 opponents. The quarterbacks post featured two Heisman contenders followed by a chasm of uncertainty; today's running backs post includes a lot more proven talent—and another Heisman contender.

These rankings still skew towards the quality of the starter, but since the running back position obviously requires a lot more rotation than quarterback, depth is a bigger factor than with QB.

1. Penn State

Saquon Barkley 272 1496 5.5 18 28 402 14.4 4
Andre Robinson 29 141 4.9 5 2 42 21.0 1
Miles Sanders 25 184 7.4 1 2 24 12.0 1
Mark Allen 29 115 4.0 1 4 24 6.0 1

Saquon Barkley needs no introduction. He's the best back in the country and a potential top-five pick in next year's NFL Draft. He's been remarkably productive despite running behind one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the country the last two years; he's also extremely dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield.

PSU would rank first on this list based on Barkley alone, but it doesn't end there. Miles Sanders is a former five-star recruit who's shown huge playmaking ability as a runner and return man. If he tightens up ball security—he lost three fumbles last year on limited touches—then defenses won't be able to slack off at all when Barkley takes a breather. Andre Robinson is another young back who held his own as Barkley's primary backup last year. The combination of depth and talent puts this group up there with any in the country.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the list.]

2. Maryland

Maryland's backs found a lot of open space last year. [Fuller]

Ty Johnson 110 1004 9.1 6 16 206 12.9 1
Lorenzo Harrison 88 633 7.2 5 9 72 8.0 0

Those yards per carry averages aren't typos. Maryland set up their offense to get speedy backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison to (and around) the edge of the defense last year, and they managed to be exceptionally productive despite the Terps passing game posing little threat. Maryland had the 12th-ranked rushing offense last year by S&P+; their passing offense ranked 101st. Opposing defenses had one job to stop the Terps, yet it proved surprisingly difficult.

Once those two get into space it's tough to corral them; they rank second (Harrison) and fourth (Johnson) among returning Big Ten backs in elusive rating. Johnson was a bit more boom-or-bust while Harrison consistently played well regardless of competition, but the latter lost the last few games of the season after getting suspended for an airsoft gun incident. They should see a relatively even timeshare again, and if the passing game can take any heat off them at all, they could produce similarly eye-popping numbers to last year.

3. Michigan State

LJ Scott put a brief scare into M last year. [Patrick Barron]

LJ Scott 184 994 5.4 6 10 147 14.7 1
Gerald Holmes 91 431 4.7 5 11 48 4.4 0
Madre London 28 120 4.2 2 1 15 15.0 0

Michigan fans only need to think back to the opening drive of last year's State game to remember how dangerous LJ Scott can be when his offensive line gives him room to operate. Scott has the size and game of an NFL feature back; he can pound it between the tackles, break off big runs to the edge, and hurt you in the passing game. He had one huge negative last year: Scott didn't really even attempt to pick up blitzers in pass protection. That dragged his PFF grade down significantly; he was otherwise excellent.

There's good depth here, too. While Gerald Holmes isn't quite as dynamic as Scott, he's another strong interior runner, and Madre London has a lot of experience for a #3 back. The numbers above are more impressive when you remember the state of MSU's O-line last year; it'll be similarly tough sledding this season, but these guys are better equipped for hard yardage than most.

4. Florida

Jordan Scarlett 179 889 5.0 6 4 23 5.8 0
Lamical Perine 91 421 4.6 1 9 161 17.9 1
Mark Thompson 68 299 4.4 2 4 105 26.3 1

Another group that looks better than the numbers, Florida is led by junior Jordan Scarlett, a sturdy back who breaks through contact at a remarkably high rate:

Florida RB Jordan Scarlett served as a living nightmare for opposing defenses last season, as he forced the most missed tackles (50) among Power 5 running backs with less than 200 carries.

With the Gators trotting out Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio at quarterback last year, opponents could load the box against the run, yet Scarlett still managed to gain consistent yardage. While Scarlett isn't much of a receiving threat, Lamical Perine emerged as a freshman to provide an excellent complement and could fill a third-down role. Mark Thompson had previously served as the primary backup before Perine's breakout and there are a couple talented freshmen in the group, too.

5. Ohio State

Mike Weber 182 1096 6.0 9 23 91 4.0 0
Demario McCall 49 270 5.5 3 4 84 21.0 1

I can't think of a better way to describe Weber, who I've been watching since his freshman year in high school, than how ESPN's Dan Murphy did above. He's not the flashiest back or the biggest back, but he runs with aggression and uses subtle moves to make it hard to hit him square. He's a great fit for Urban Meyer's offense.

The Buckeyes lose their best playmaker in Curtis Samuel, which is a huge hit. They've still got some tantalizing talents behind Weber. Early enrollee JK Dobbins, a top-50 recruit, has already seized a hold of the #2 spot, which allowed OSU to move multi-talented sophomore Demario McCall to H-back for fall camp. That may be all they need; JT Barrett will take on his usual large rushing load, plus the H-backs (McCall and Parris Campbell) are both former RBs who will get touches in the backfield. If OSU needs a third true RB, they have four-star sophomore Antonio Williams waiting for a shot. If Dobbins lives up to the practice hype, OSU could move as high as #2 on this list.

6. Minnesota

Rodney Smith 240 1158 4.8 16 23 188 8.1 0
Shannon Brooks 138 650 4.7 5 8 76 9.5 2
Kobe McCrary 39 242 6.2 3 2 17 8.5 0

Juniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have traded off leading rusher status over the last two years in an offense bogged down by a Mitch Leidner-led passing game and sub-par offensive line. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, both have proven to be effective power backs. Brooks fell off a bit last year from his freshman form, so there's room for a bounceback here, too. Unfortunately, the passing game looks like it could be a disaster—say hello to Mitch Leidner's backups—so we'll see if these guys can carry the load while also adjusting to a new system.

7. Wisconsin

Bradrick Shaw 88 457 5.2 5 1 6 6.0 0
Chris James (Pitt 2015) 56 253 4.5 0 7 48 6.9 0
Taiwan Deal 32 164 5.1 0 0 0 0 0
Austin Ramesh 17 58 3.4 3 3 24 8.0 0
Alec Ingold 18 44 2.4 4 6 55 9.1 2

Wisconsin's running game has been surprisingly underwhelming under Paul Chryst. They lose their top two tailbacks from last year, lead back Corey Clement and third-down back Dare Ogunbowale. In their stead is Bradrick Shaw, who showed some promise as the third back, and Pitt transfer Chris James, who was caught in a depth chart quagmire behind James Connor. Those two could get pushed by freshman Jonathan Taylor, who was on the 3/4-star borderline in the 2017 class.

I can't mention Wisconsin's backfield without noting they have two of the three best fullbacks in the conference. Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold are both plus blockers who can convert short-yardage runs and make the occasional catch out of the backfield.

Clement couldn't get much of anything going last year and the Badgers lose first-round OT Ryan Ramczyk, one of the best run-blockers in the country. This could be another year of the Wisconsin offense spinning their wheels. If not for their schedule, this would be the year they get unseated in the West. I vote they bring back this guy:


8. Rutgers

The best shot of a Rutgers RB I could find in our database. [Barron]

Gus Edwards (Miami FL) 59 290 4.9 1 1 9 9.0 0
Robert Martin 121 625 5.2 2 5 37 7.4 0
Josh Hicks 45 157 3.5 0 1 -4 -4.0 0
Trey Sneed 16 53 3.3 0 1 2 2.0 0

I think Robert Martin is a pretty good back, especially given the circumstances at Rutgers; he manages to plow ahead for five yards on a consistent basis even though there are rarely clean gaps to run through. So I was surprised to see that Miami (YTM) transfer Gus Edwards is the top back right now; while we may not get to see it on display against Michigan, I think this means Rutgers has two legitimately good running backs.

So that's one position down, 23 to go.

9. Air Force

Timothy McVey 83 708 8.5 10 8 193 24.1 2
Parker Wilson 16 97 6.1 0 0 0 0 0
Jacob Stafford 4 14 2.5 0 0 0 0 0

The unfortunately named Timothy McVey (born before Oklahoma City, FWIW, but he should really go by Tim anyway) emerged over the course of last season as Air Force's best runner. When he gets a pitch on the edge, he's a serious big-play threat:

While AF loses their top three fullbacks, Parker Wilson looked good in spot snaps playing that role last year. Experienced depth is nonexistent, but that's generally the norm at a service academy; they should be able to plug-and-play a couple backs and keep their option offense churning at its usual pace.

10. Purdue

Markell Jones 153 616 4.0 4 32 215 6.7 0
Brian Lankford-Johnson 48 314 6.5 2 11 90 8.2 0
Richie Worship 35 133 3.8 2 8 49 6.1 0
Tario Fuller 10 30 3.0 0 5 51 10.2 0
DJ Knox (2015) 108 409 3.8 2 26 189 7.3 0

Markell Jones had an excellent freshman year in 2015, averaging 5.2 YPC and rushing for ten touchdowns as the starting back, but he fell back to earth hard in his sophomore season. At his best, he's a solid all-purpose back, but last year's slump is cause for concern. DJ Knox, who's back after a year lost to injury, is expected to be the primary backup, and behind him is a pile of relatively indistinguishable guys. Purdue really needs Jones to return to his freshman form.

11. Indiana

[Eric Upchurch]

Tyler Natee 61 237 3.9 2 1 4 4.0 0
Mike Majette 39 180 4.6 0 7 87 12.4 0
Devonte Williams 48 167 3.5 0 7 50 7.1 0
Ricky Brookins 20 82 4.1 0 4 16 4.0 0
Cole Gest 10 47 4.7 0 1 2 2.0 0
Alex Rodriguez 10 41 4.1 0 1 15 15.0 0

Indiana's streak of good running back play has probably petered out. Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard provided some great years, then last year Devine Redding was productive, if not particularly efficient, before leaving early for the NFL Draft. (He went undrafted.)

As of yet, nobody has separated themselves from the pack. The leading returner is 260-pound sophomore Tyler "Big Bacon" Natee, who got most of his snaps as a Wildcat QB flanked by Zander Diamont—I'm skeptical he'll be more than a situational player. Scatback Mike Majette, a wide receiver in high school, probably boasts the best combination of running and receiving ability. A host of others, including a couple former walk-ons, also have a shot at cracking the two-deep.

12. Cincinnati

Mike Boone 105 388 3.7 2 20 249 12.5 0
Taylor Boose 2 9 4.5 0 0 0 0 0

The Bearcats lost lead back Tion Green, who mustered 4.7 yards per carry last year, and senior Mike Boone is now a no-doubt starter. Boone averaged 3.7 YPC in 2016 and showed little ability to make players miss in the open field; Cincinnati finished 112th in rushing S&P+. There's no proven depth behind Boone. This could get ugly.

Where Would Michigan Rank?

You could make a decent argument for Michigan to be anywhere from second to seventh on this list. I'd have them fourth for now, barely behind Michigan State, which has a more proven lead back and primary backup, though Michigan's depth and overall talent almost gets them above the Spartans. There isn't much separating the teams behind Penn State until you get to Wisconsin.


Monocle Smile

August 24th, 2017 at 2:21 PM ^

Maybe it's the video, but that McVey guy seems to have some serious wheels.

Michigan's defense was able to hold most of those dangermen in check last year. Barkley got some yards, but Maryland's backs were mostly ineffective. We should be fine at home vs. Sparty as long as the bear hugs actually get called.


August 24th, 2017 at 2:24 PM ^

I am not worried about Sparty.  Their offense is going to be really one-dimensional, and that one dimension happens to line up really well for us with the expected strengths (DL) and weaknesses (secondary) of our defense.  Same goes for Maryland.


August 25th, 2017 at 10:00 AM ^

McVey is a speedy little sucker and Ronald Cleveland in the half receiver/half running back position has some get up and go as well.

That said, keep in mind this video is against Colorado State, so some of the gaps he's zipping through in the video, won;t be there against Michigan(and I say this as an Air Force fan).


August 24th, 2017 at 2:22 PM ^

It frustrates me to no end that PSU - fresh off of sanctions for basically silently condoning child rape - has suffered less as a program than we did for hiring two bonehead coaches.  The fact that they are already fairly reloaded, and have that much RB talent so soon after THAT happened while we are still searching for a decent ground attack just frustrates me.  


August 24th, 2017 at 8:35 PM ^

Its definitely sad the UM seems to never have a stellar RB or great rush O-line. During the 70's-90's we were good. Then UM became QB U under Carr and never went back (with a few exceptions). 

Programs much smaler than ours regularly get great RB's. Its really frustrating.

oriental andrew

August 24th, 2017 at 2:23 PM ^

Saquon Barkley could win the Heisman. The last Heisman-winning RB who played against Michigan more than once was Ron Dayne. He never brushed for more than 100 yards against or beat Michigan. 

To date, Barkley has not rushed for more than 100 yards against or beaten Michigan. 

Just sayin'. 

Also, feelin' like osu needs to be higher on the list, although they are also helped by a strong OL. 


August 24th, 2017 at 2:25 PM ^

Saquon Barkley against Michigan (2 games):
30 rushes for 127 yards (4.2 YPA), 0 TDs
7 receptions for 96 yards (13.7 YPC), 0TDs

He's totaled 223 yards and 0 touchdowns in two games, with 25% of those yards coming on his first carry against Michigan, a 56 yard run. He's a great back, but we've had little trouble containing him. Let's hope that trend continues.



August 24th, 2017 at 5:23 PM ^

and they had a bad one two years ago and only a decent one last year (that of course was blown up by our D line).

He'll be limited to what his O line get him, and I suspect they'll be better than what they were last year with more experience, and while I think our starters should dominate them, we could have some holes in the second string line/less depth to withstand an injury than we had last year.


August 24th, 2017 at 2:33 PM ^

Where Would Michigan Rank?

You could make a decent argument for Michigan to be anywhere from second to seventh on this list. I'd have them fourth for now, barely behind Michigan State, which has a more proven lead back and primary backup, though Michigan's depth and overall talent almost gets them above the Spartans. There isn't much separating the teams behind Penn State until you get to Wisconsin.


August 24th, 2017 at 4:00 PM ^

It's amazing to think Wisconsin would rank as low as 7th after all the high-powered run-based offensive teams they had under Alvarez & Bielema. Could a team whose QB is mediocre & running backs are mediocre really be such a clear-cut favorite to win the division? I know O-Line & defense ranking haven't been listed yet, but without a good passer or good runners, the offense can't be much better than middle of the pack in the conference.


August 24th, 2017 at 5:27 PM ^

running game is mostly on the O line.  RBs are pretty interchangeable which is mentioned here when Ace says there isn't much separating 2-7.  They are the least known commodities so makes sense to put them seventh, but there very well could be a star in the bunch and they'll almost certainly put up solid numbers as a group because they'll have good blocking.

Plus, their schedule is an absolute cake-walk.  That's why they're favored to win the division.


August 25th, 2017 at 12:10 PM ^

I agree that Wisconsin's schedule is total cake.  They will get production from RB though it will be inflated due to weak opponents.  That said, it is hard to bet against Wiscy being able to run the ball based on history.  Problem in this case, is they don't have a lot on RB and OL on paper.  I guess we'll find out as the season goes on.


August 24th, 2017 at 4:00 PM ^

I would take our running back situation over everyone on this list with the exception of PSU. We have a great stable of backs, and would be able to manage an injury or even two and still be productive. The success of Michigan's running game will come down to how well our OL develops and gels together.


August 24th, 2017 at 4:49 PM ^

Yes, but lack of a true lead back like Barkley or LJ Scott is what keeps them 4th, on this list anyway. Don't get me wrong, I love our stable of backs, but if I had a choice I'd prefer to have a future NFL RB as our lead back. Soon.


August 24th, 2017 at 4:05 PM ^

Weber sucks.  He is mediocre at best.  Weber is a major step down from past OSU RB's.  In Urban Meyer's system, he'll have decent numbers, but a blind donkey could produce decent numbers in Meyer's system.


August 25th, 2017 at 1:28 AM ^

Weber sucks. He is mediocre at best. Weber is a major step down from past OSU RB's. In Urban Meyer's system, he'll have decent numbers, but a blind donkey could produce decent numbers in Meyer's system.

When Urban Meyer arrived at Ohio State, the consensus here was that good RBs would be nuts to play for him since he'd never coached one who reached 1k yards.

Now the narrative is his system is so RB-friendly that a mediocrity can reach that mark?


August 25th, 2017 at 12:07 PM ^

You're all over the place.  First you said Weber "sucks" then "he's a step down from Elliot".  Almost any RB is a step down from Elliot.

Weber is good, not great.  And I wouldn't be scared of him or gameplan around him if I was Don Brown.  Meyer will put him and the rest of Ohio's offense in the best position to suceed however (sadly).


August 25th, 2017 at 12:05 PM ^

The criticism of Meyer's system being "bad" for developing NFL talent is overplayed.  People used it to criticize: QB, WR, RB, TE development at OSU as not reaching their potential due to the system.  There may be some truth to it, but when you're bringing in the type of talent year in and year out that OSU does, you end up developing and putting a lot of dudes in the league.


August 24th, 2017 at 8:41 PM ^

Wasn't it Brian or another blog writer here who was questioning why we didn't go hard after Barkley when in high school?
It seems over the years the knowledge and eye for talent when it came to rbs, superceded our coaches, especially the Hoke staff


August 25th, 2017 at 2:55 AM ^

I like Turner and Samuels, but watch out for the 2019 class. We are in great shape with Crouch, Cain and Grey. Like Mangem at FB. Michigan will have a tremendous running game in the future and make other teams running games pedestrian because of our superior defenses. Michigan will field big nasty o-lines with great running backs so sit back and enjoy the ride.