Last week on the Big Ten blog, we looked at a position group for each team that needed some help from the incoming freshman class. This week we’ll be taking a look on the brighter side and breaking down the strongest link for each of the conference’s 14 teams as they head into the 2016 season. Next up is Rutgers.
Position of strength: Running backs
2015 production: The Scarlet Knights had a mediocre year on offense, but had a couple encouraging performances from their young running backs. Despite competing with fifth-year senior Paul James for carries, both Martin and Hicks topped 700 yards rushing and combined for 10 of the team’s 17 rushing scores.
The young backs struggled when facing tougher Big Ten defenses, racking up their biggest days in nonconference play and against some of the league’s lesser run-stoppers. The team managed to finish the season averaging 169.9 rushing yards per game, right in the middle of the pack in FBS play.
How they can help: The sophomores had a hard time containing their joy when they learned that they would have the chance to carry the ball in a power spread offense next fall. Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer plans to bring with him the offense he learned at Ohio State and Houston, two schools that finished among the top 15 rushing programs in the country in 2015. Martin tweeted, “Robert Martin in a spread offense… need I say more” when he learned about the new coaching staff in early December.
The new offense might also help get speedster Janarion Grant involved in another dimension of the offense. Grant showed his speed on kick returns and with his 35 catches. He averaged 10 yards per carry in 2015, but only took eight handoffs. The senior looks like he could be a good fit for the jet sweeps that similar slot players such as Jalin Marshall have had a lot of success with at Ohio State. If Grant proves to be a threat in the running game, that should also open up some holes for Martin and Hicks running downhill.
All three players are upperclassmen and ready to take over as leaders. The key that could turn this potential into a dangerous rushing attack for defenses in the Big Ten this fall will be the offensive line. The Scarlet Knights lose their top blocker in left tackle Keith Lumpkin. If the new coaching staff can help the four returning starters improve, Hicks and Martin could be in line for a big year.