Chicago Colleges: Riley Bullough

Big Ten's 1,000-yard rushers in 2013

May, 30, 2013
We admit that some numbers we use as yardsticks of success in college football can be somewhat arbitrary.

For example, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde had a terrific 2012 season, rushing for 16 touchdowns. But because he missed two games with injuries and the Buckeyes were ineligible for the postseason, Hyde didn't reach the "magical" 1,000-yard rushing mark. Instead, he finished with an oh-so-close 970.

Does that make Hyde's season any less outstanding. Not really. Still, there's a certain amount of prestige and pride that goes along with breaking four digits as a running back, and in a league known for running the ball like the Big Ten, it can take on added importance.

That's why we're taking a look at the players most likely to break that 1,000-yard barrier in 2013. Let's start by looking at the five returning players who pulled off the feat in 2012 and examine their prospects of doing the same for the fall:

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanVenric Mark seems like a safe bet to rush for more than 1,000 yards again this season.
Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern (1,371 rushing yards in 2012): Mark had eight games of at least 100 rushing yards last season, becoming the first Wildcat since 2006 to eclipse the 1k plateau. While teams will game plan heavily for him, Mark also benefits by having quarterback Kain Colter in the same backfield as another running threat. There is every reason to believe he'll be among the Big Ten's top rushers again this season.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (1,271): Miller did most of his damage on the ground in the first half of last season, and Ohio State would like to see him throw the ball more. But he also didn't gain much yardage on true scrambles last season, which could improve in '13. And since the Buckeyes are likely to play at least one more game this season, Miller is another safe bet for 1,000.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (1,137): Abdullah won't have to worry about splitting carries with Rex Burkhead, though Imani Cross looks to become a bigger part of the offense. With Nebraska's commitment to running the ball, the only concern about Abdullah is a knee injury that kept him out this spring. He is expected to fully recover, however.

Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska (1,019): Martinez broke 1,000 for the first time in his career last season, aided no doubt by Nebraska playing 14 games, including the Big Ten title game. He's a threat to rip off huge plays every time he takes off and runs, but he has needed to do that less as he's improved as a passer.

Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State (1,000): The most unlikely member of the 1,000-yard club in 2012, Zwinak surprised everybody by emerging as Penn State's best running option. People still doubt whether he can duplicate that performance, but the Lions might rely on the running game more with a new starting quarterback under center. The lack of a 13th game does hurt his chances, however.

And now let's take a look at some players who could challenge that 1,000-yard mark in 2013, in order of likelihood:

1. Hyde (970): The senior could have to split carries with Miller, Rod Smith and others. But he really got going in the second half of last season and should get a lot more than 185 rushing attempts if he stays healthy all season.

T-2. James White (840) and Melvin Gordon (643), Wisconsin: Montee Ball is gone, but the Badgers' running back tradition should continue. White already has a 1,000-yard season under his belt, and got close last season as the No. 2 tailback. He should see his carries go up, while Gordon is wildly talented and can post huge stats without many touches. Don't be surprised if both top 1,000 yards this season.

4. Mark Weisman, Iowa (815): Weisman put up some monster numbers once the Hawkeyes set him loose out of near desperation last season, and he ran for more than 800 yards despite playing in only 10 games and being banged up for many of those. Iowa is much deeper in the backfield heading into this season, but he could still lead the team in carries.

5. Donnell Kirkwood, Minnesota (926): Kirkwood somewhat quietly had one of the highest rushing totals in the league last season. With Minnesota's dedication to the power running game and what looks like a deeper, healthier offensive line, Kirkwood should see his total go up this year if he can maintain his grip on the No. 1 job.

6. Colter, QB, Northwestern (894): It's possible Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State could all have QB/RB combos who go for 1,000 yards each this season. Colter was fairly close last season, and that was despite Mark's brilliance and splitting time with Trevor Siemian. Colter averaged better than five yards per carry, so it's simply a matter of how many times the Wildcats want him to run in 2013.

7. Fitz Toussaint (555) or Derrick Green, Michigan: Despite his disappointing season in 2012, Toussaint was a 1,000-yard back two years ago and could rediscover that form. If not, true freshman Green would be happy to give it a shot. The Wolverines are likely to use a more traditional running game now that Denard Robinson is gone.

8. Akeem Hunt, Purdue (335): Hunt averaged a jaw-dropping eight yards per carry last season, and looks to be the featured back for new head coach Darrell Hazell, who turned Kent State into a ground-and-pound machine. Of course, Hunt will have to prove he can take the beating of a full season as the top tailback after carrying the ball just 42 times a year ago.

9. Stephen Houston, Indiana (749): In Houston's favor: he ran for more than 800 yards two years ago, and the Hoosiers have pledged to run the ball more in 2013. Against him: He might have to share more carries this season, especially if the mobile Tre Roberson plays quarterback. And the IU coaches have never been effusive in their praise of Houston.

10. Unknown Michigan State tailback: We know that Mark Dantonio likes to feed the ball to his running backs, as evidenced by Le'Veon Bell's 382 carries last season. Riley Bullough or one of three true freshman could emerge as the bell cow this season. We'd just feel better about it we actually knew who that starting tailback would be.

11. Donovonn Young, RB, Illinois (571): He led the team in rushing a year ago, and his straight-ahead running style could prove a nice asset in the new Illinois spread offense. Yes, the Illini have a long way to go to produce a 1,000-yard rusher, and they're highly unlikely to play more than 12 games. But if Donovonn Young won't change your mind ... baby, baby, baby. (Sorry -- gratuitous Vampire Weekend reference).

Which players do you see running for 1,000 yards in 2013?

100-days checklist: Big Ten

May, 21, 2013
Good news: We are just 100 days away from the start of college football.

To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:

1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.

2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.

3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Junior Hemingway and Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.

4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.

5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.