Ranking the Big Ten running backs

July, 18, 2008
7/18/08
12:20
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After an extended examination of the Big Ten quarterbacks, from conundrums at four schools to stability at others, it's time to start rolling out position rankings. Let's begin with a look at the league's running backs.

For several positions, such as running back, wide receiver and linebacker, I'll break up the rankings into individual (top 10) and team. For offensive line, it will only be team. The reason? Beanie Wells is the Big Ten's best running back, but Wisconsin's four-pack might be the strongest group.

The Big Ten had four teams rank among the top 30 nationally in rushing offense, and despite losing standouts Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Hart, the league looks solid in the backfield.

INDIVIDUALS

 
 AP Photo/Terry Gilliam
 Beanie Wells rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 TDs last season.

1. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Jr., Ohio State -- Heisman contender enters his junior season as the league's premier back. Wells was consistently productive last season despite playing most of it with a bad ankle and a broken bone in his left wrist. His offensive line returns virtually intact, putting Beanie in line for another 1,500-yard season.

2. Javon Ringer, Sr., Michigan State -- Excellent slasher could push Wells for the league's rushing title. Last fall, Ringer rushed for 1,447 yards and six touchdowns -- big man Jehuu Caulcrick usually got the call near the goal line -- and expects to get more carries this season. Caulcrick's absence could hurt, but Ringer has thrived in the team's run-first offense.

3. P.J. Hill, Jr., Wisconsin -- The Badgers will throw different looks at defenses, but Hill is undoubtedly the first option. Hill finally enjoyed a healthy offseason and was able to increase his strength in the weight room. Despite being banged up last fall, Hill still rushed for 1,212 yards and 14 touchdowns. If he stays on the field, his combination of size and speed is hard to contain.

4. Tyrell Sutton, Sr., Northwestern -- After winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2005, Sutton has left center stage, struggling in an anemic offense as a sophomore and missing most of last season with a high ankle sprain. He's fully healthy and headlines an offense stocked with veteran skill players. If a new-look line jells, Sutton will show why he's still one of the league's best backs.

5. Evan Royster, So., Penn State -- Teammate Stephfon Green has Happy Valley buzzing, but defenses better not forget about Royster. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry last season as Rodney Kinlaw's backup, and enters the summer as Penn State's No. 1 back. Royster is a strong between-the-tackles runner but, like Green, has breakaway ability, as he showed with a 38-yard touchdown in the Alamo Bowl.

6. Kory Sheets, Sr., Purdue -- Fumbling problems have prevented Sheets from becoming Purdue's featured back, but he could claim the lion's share of the carries as a senior. Sheets averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns last fall, finishing ninth in the league with 859 rushing yards. If he can hang onto the ball this fall, Sheets should have a strong finish to his career.

7. Jaycen Taylor, Jr., Purdue -- Taylor is definitely tough enough to be Purdue's featured back. He returned to the field last fall just four games after breaking his left arm. The next step is consistent production, which Taylor showed at times in 2007. Sheets' ongoing fumbling problems caused coach Joe Tiller to give Taylor the slight edge on the depth chart coming out of spring ball.

8. Marcus Thigpen, Sr. Indiana -- Everyone knows Thigpen has elite speed, but he hasn't proven to be a viable threat out of the backfield. The senior figures to get more carries this fall as Indiana tries to complement quarterback Kellen Lewis with another rushing threat. Thigpen proved he can step up in big games, rushing for 140 yards in a bowl-clinching win against Purdue last November.

9. Stephfon Green, Fr., Penn State -- He hasn't played a college game yet, but his speed and big-play potential have Penn State fans counting the days until Aug. 30. Green will play behind Evan Royster, but if he duplicates his spring-practice highlights in a meaningful setting, he'll dash past a lot of backs on this list.

10. Lance Smith-Williams, Jr., Wisconsin -- Teammate Zach Brown merits a mention here, but consider what Smith-Williams did last season. Suspended from playing in away games, he rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns on only 71 carries (6.0 ypc average). Allowed to travel with the team this season, Smith-Williams provides an excellent complement to Hill in the run game.

TEAM

1. Wisconsin -- The variety of size, skill and depth provided by Hill, Smith-Williams, Brown and hyped redshirt freshman John Clay can't be matched in the league. A new starting quarterback will have plenty of help.

2. Ohio State -- Beanie Wells is a workhorse, but the Buckeyes have plenty of talent behind him in Maurice Wells, dynamic sophomore Brandon Saine and promising redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron.

3. Penn State -- If Green backs up his hype on the field, the Lions could jump up the list. Royster and Green give Penn State two formidable threats alongside a new starting quarterba
ck.

4. Purdue -- Sheets and Taylor have competed forever, with neither man cementing the No. 1 spot. But as a tandem, they give pass-happy Purdue another strong dimension.

5. Michigan State -- Ringer is a proven star who can punish defenses with his slashing speed. Though the Spartans lost Caulcrick, the league's eighth-leading rusher last season, hopes are high for A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett.

6. Northwestern -- The Wildcats should get back to their running roots under new offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Sutton is dangerous when healthy, and versatile senior Omar Conteh filled in nicely last fall.

7. Michigan -- No proven commodities here, but offensive coordinator Calvin Magee has a track record for producing all-league backs. Brandon Minor looked good this spring, and Carlos Brown returns from a broken finger. If Kevin Grady resolves his legal troubles, he gives the Wolverines a big, versatile body in the backfield.

8. Illinois -- Quarterback Juice Williams is a running threat, but Illinois didn't identify a replacement for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall in spring practice. Junior Daniel Dufrene likely will get the first shot at the top job, with both Troy Pollard and freshman Mikel LeShoure also in the mix.

9. Indiana -- When opponents prepare for Indiana's run game, they talk about quarterback Lewis. It's up to the running backs -- Thigpen, Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray or freshman Darius Willis -- to put another name in the scouting report.

10. Minnesota -- Here's another team with the quarterback (Adam Weber) as its leading rusher. Jay Thomas comes off his second ACL surgery and will compete with promising sophomore Duane Bennett for the job. Both men have potential, but there's little depth behind them.

11. Iowa -- Albert Young and Damian Sims are gone, and the Hawkeyes ended spring with a walk-on (Paki O'Meara) as their top running back. Yikes. Shonn Greene returns to potentially stabilize things, and incoming freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton will get looks in camp.

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