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 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.]
Maryland's backs found a lot of open space last year. [Fuller]
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]
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.
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
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 23, 2017
Weber is elusive in the same sense that my dog is elusive when he runs through a screen door. (This is a compliment) https://t.co/YHkX6wclPR
— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) August 23, 2017
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.
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.
|Chris James (Pitt 2015)||56||253||4.5||0||7||48||6.9||0|
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:
Digging through film and I found my favorite running back of all time
5'4", 200 lb Rufus Ferguson of Wisconsin pic.twitter.com/TnA3TYNe1X
— THICC KEN (@edsbs) August 24, 2017
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|
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
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.
|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.
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.
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.