Big Ten: Xavier Whitaker

Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.

Indiana spring wrap

May, 4, 2011
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Indiana

2010 overall record: 5-7

2010 conference record: 1-7 (11th)

Returning starters

Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

WR Damarlo Belcher, WR Duwyce Wilson, RB Darius Willis, T Andrew McDonald, G Justin Pagan, DE Darius Johnson, LB Jeff Thomas, S Donnell Jones, DT Adam Replogle, K Mitch Ewald

Key losses

QB Ben Chappell, WR Tandon Doss, OT James Brewer, WR Terrance Turner, LB Tyler Replogle, CB Richard Council, S Mitchell Evans

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Trea Burgess (352 yards)

Passing: Ben Chappell (3,295 yards)

Receiving: Damarlo Belcher* (832 yards)

Tackles: Tyler Replogle (87)

Sacks: Darius Johnson* (4.5)

Interceptions: Mitchell Evans (3)

Spring answers

1. Cup of Kofi: It wasn't a huge surprise, but Kofi Hughes really solidified himself as one of Indiana's top receivers this spring alongside Damarlo Belcher and Duwyce Wilson. Hughes, who recorded only seven receptions last season, made several big plays in scrimmages and became a favorite target of quarterbacks Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker. Receiver will be Indiana's strong group this season, and Hughes adds to it.

2. LB tandem emerges: Indiana's defense needs significant upgrades, but the Hoosiers should have some pieces to build around at linebacker. Senior Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum both drew favorable reviews from the staff this spring. Both players have grasped the new defense, and Thomas is more than willing to take a greater leadership role in the fall. The key now is for IU to find a third starter at linebacker.

3. Young DBs show promise: The Hoosiers' secondary has a long way to go, but several young players provide hope for the future. Greg Heban came on strong toward the end of last season, recording 40 tackles, an interception and five passes defended. He continued to show promise this spring. Cornerback Lawrence Barnett had an interception return for a touchdown and a pass breakup in the spring game. Both sophomores should play big roles this fall.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson made it clear that starting jobs must be earned, and no quarterback earned the starting spot this spring. Kiel and Wright-Baker will continue to compete for the No. 1 job in preseason camp after mixed results in spring ball. During my visit to Bloomington, I got the sense Kiel has the edge, but this race could last until mid-to-late August.

2. Running back: This might be Indiana's biggest question mark entering the fall, as lingering injuries limited the group in spring practice. Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker all are coming off season-ending knee injuries, and none has been evaluated on the field by the new staff. Willis boasts the most experience but also the most injury problems. Matt Perez and Nick Turner participated in spring ball and will be in the mix.

3. Grasping the systems: Wilson really made the spring about attitude and understanding the new demands from the staff. At times, he'd call the same play over and over just to see who stepped up and who caved in. The next few months will be critical as Hoosiers players start to grasp the schematics on both sides of the ball. This might be a bigger challenge on offense, as Wilson likes to play extremely fast, but the defense also needs a lot of work after struggling for so many years.

Big Ten personnel updates

November, 16, 2010
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Some personnel nuggets from around the league as we spin toward Week 12.

MICHIGAN STATE

True freshman defensive end William Gholston will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Coach Mark Dantonio said Gholston could have played out the season with the injury, but the surgery would have kept him out for spring practice.

"We felt like, because he's a true freshman and has such a big upside, we needed to have him there for spring ball," Dantonio said.

Gholston, a decorated recruit who began preseason practice at linebacker before moving to defensive end, has appeared in all 10 games this fall and has recorded 13 tackles, five quarterback hurries, a pass breakup and a tackle for loss.

The good news is the Spartans will get dynamic receiver/return man Keshawn Martin back from a foot/ankle injury.

"Keshawn's a huge playmaker for us, a big-play guy, so it'll be a huge boost for us," Dantonio said.

PENN STATE

The Lions will stick with Matt McGloin as their starting quarterback despite the sophomore's struggles in the second half against Ohio State. McGloin tossed two first-half touchdown passes and completed 12 of his first 15 pass attempts against the Buckeyes, but he went just 3-for-13 with two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second half.

I think Penn State needs to watch McGloin closely against Indiana. He should be able to make plays against the Hoosiers' defense, but it also presents an opportunity to get Rob Bolden some valuable reps.

Linebacker Michael Mauti (elbow) likely will miss the Indiana game, which is a big loss, while reserve running back Stephfon Green should play, Paterno said.

Paterno isn't sure if No. 2 running back Silas Redd will play after the freshman was cited for public urination earlier this week.

ILLINOIS

Sophomore linebacker Evan Frierson has been dismissed from the team two days after his arrest for aggravated battery. Check out more details here, but Frierson is alleged to have punched two people on a street near the Illinois campus early Sunday before fleeing the scene.

"As I have always done, I review each situation on an individual basis and make sure I have all the information," Illinois coach Ron Zook said in a prepared statement. "After a full review, I think it's in Evan's best interest to concentrate on his academics and his legal issues, and he no longer remains a part of our football program."

Frierson isn't a major loss for this year, as he has only six tackles in nine games played. But his departure could thin Illinois' linebacker depth for the future, as Illinois loses Nate Bussey after the season and fourth-year junior Martez Wilson could opt to enter the NFL draft.

PURDUE

The good news is that quarterback Rob Henry's hand seems better this week and the redshirt freshman should take on an increased role Saturday at No. 12 Michigan State. Purdue wants to use Henry as much as possible but will go with true freshman Sean Robinson if necessary.

"We think he's further along now than he has been, obviously, since the Ohio State game, and feel a lot better about him to go out and execute the run offense as well as a pass offense this weekend," coach Danny Hope said. "That hasn't been the case the last couple of weekends."

Justin Siller, meanwhile, likely won't return for Purdue's final two regular-season games after reaggravating his foot injury on the first play from scrimmage against Michigan. Siller made a surprise start at quarterback but left after one play.

INDIANA

Quarterback Ben Chappell didn't practice Monday, which has been the case for the last 4-5 weeks. Coach Bill Lynch remains very optimistic that the senior will play Saturday against Penn State.

That's a very good thing after Chappell left the Wisconsin game in the second quarter with a hip injury.

"As a football team, we did not handle him leaving the game," Lynch said. "As a result, we had no offensive production."

Freshman Antonio Banks will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL. Banks is the third Hoosiers freshman back to suffer a major knee injury, joining Matt Perez and Xavier Whitaker.

All three players likely will miss spring practice, Lynch said.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 23, 2009
6/23/09
12:30
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Bats, they are sick. I cannot hit curveball. Straight ball I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. I ask Jobu to come, take fear from bats. I offer him cigar, rum. He will come. 

"As the legal process proceeds, he will be attending class and maintaining his orientation preparation academically and athletically," OSU coach Jim Tressel said yesterday. "The privilege of playing will be determined by the outcome of the legal situation."

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