Taking the lead from some of my blogger colleagues, I'm going to examine several statistical milestones and list the top Big Ten candidates to reach them in 2011. Let's start off with 1,000 rushing yards, a stat that the Big Ten certainly holds near and dear.
Seven Big Ten players eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in 2010, four of whom return for this season. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson led the league with 1,702 rush yards, followed by six running backs (Ohio State's Dan Herron, who had 1,155 rush yards last season, is suspended for the first five games this year).
Who are the top candidates to reach quadruple digits on the ground in 2011?
Let's take a look.
1. Wisconsin RBs Montee Ball and James White: White led the Badgers with 1,052 rush yards as a freshman in 2010, and while Ball fell four yards short of 1,000, he racked up 777 rush yards in his final five games. Wisconsin loses 1,000-yard rusher John Clay, so Ball and White will get the bulk of the carries this fall. Both men changed their bodies in the offseason, as Ball slimmed down to get faster and White improved his lower-body strength for greater power and durability. The Badgers once again will boast an elite offensive line, and I'd expect both Ball and White to eclipse 1,000 rush yards.
2. Michigan State RB Edwin Baker: After racking up 1,201 rush yards as sophomore, Baker is setting his goals even higher in 2011. While he might not get enough carries to reach 2,000 yards, he certainly has a chance to get back to 1,000. He'll need help from a revamped offensive line, but Baker has performed well this spring and brings a good combination of strength and breakaway speed to the Spartans' backfield.
3. At least one of Nebraska's backs: The Huskers lose a 1,200-yard rusher in Roy Helu Jr., but they bring back two players (running back Rex Burkhead and quarterback Taylor Martinez) who nearly recorded 1,000 rush yards last fall. Nebraska should have at least one 1,000-yard ball-carrier this season, whether it's Burkhead, Martinez or possibly someone like heralded incoming freshman Aaron Green. Burkhead is the best bet, and if Martinez can stay healthy, he, like Robinson, should make enough big plays to challenge the milestone.
4. Michigan QB Denard Robinson: The Wolverines don't plan to run Robinson nearly as much as they did last season, when "Shoelace" missed portions of several games with injuries. But offensive coordinator Al Borges is no dummy, and he knows Robinson is a special player with the ball in his hands. Robinson's ability to gash defenses for big gains should help him once again approach the 1,000-yard plateau. He won't get 1,700 yards again, but he'll have enough big plays to challenge for 1,000.
5. Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase: While Scheelhaase has made strides as a passer, his running skills set him apart. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino expects the redshirt sophomore to run more this season as the Illini must replace standout back Mikel Leshoure (1,697 rush yards in 2010). Illinois boasts an outstanding offensive line and still must identify a top running back, so expect Scheelhaase to get plenty of chances after racking up 868 rush yards last season.
6. Iowa RB Marcus Coker: After a historic bowl performance against Missouri, Coker has continued to make strides and should be one of the Big Ten's top backs this season. He'll run behind a strong offensive line, and Iowa will emphasize the run a lot this fall. Coker is a big back with both power and big-play ability, as he showed in the bowl game. Although Iowa must identify a second back to give Coker a breather, the sophomore will have a heavy carries load and seems up to the task.
Also keep an eye on these 1,000-yard rushing candidates:
Penn State RB Silas Redd
Purdue RB Ralph Bolden
Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell
We'll continue the series Monday with a look at the Big Ten's top sack masters in 2011.