- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2010 season wasn't a great one for Big Ten running backs.
The league's best running back played quarterback (Michigan's Denard Robinson). Illinois' Mikel Leshoure flew under the radar but was a nationally elite back in every sense of the word.
But after those two, meh. The league boasted some solid backs -- Edwin Baker, James White, Dan Herron, Adam Robinson, John Clay -- but no one you had to watch every time he took the field. The Big Ten's real star power could be found on the defensive line, as five players went on to become first round picks in the NFL draft.
This season, it's all about the running backs in the Big Ten. The league boasts four players averaging more than 105 rush yards per game, all of whom rank among the nation's top 21 rushers. No other league has more backs in the top 25 nationally than the Big Ten.
So who's the Big Ten's best running back in 2011? It's already one of the more spirited debates around the conference.
Let's meet the candidates (in alphabetical order):
Wisconsin junior Montee Ball
Nebraska junior Rex Burkhead
Iowa sophomore Marcus Coker
Penn State sophomore Silas Redd
Now let's take a closer look at each player and how they stack up.
Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Wentzville, Mo.
2011 stats: 162 carries for 1,076 yards and 21 touchdowns, 119.6 ypg, 6.64 ypc, 13 receptions for 229 yards and 3 touchdowns, 1-for-1 passing with a 25-yard touchdown
Things to know: Ball leads the nation with 24 touchdowns, tying the team record set by Brian Calhoun. He needs just two touchdowns to tie the Big Ten single-season record held by three players. Ball scores a touchdown every 7.3 touches. ... Ball leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (145 per game). He ranks fifth nationally among FBS running backs in combined rushing-receiving yards. ... He has scored at least one touchdown in each of his last 15 games and 39 touchdowns during the span. ... Ball has rushed for at least 115 yards in eight of his last nine games against Big Ten opponents. ... Like the other Wisconsin backs, Ball has no fumbles (lost or recovered) this season. ... Despite a strong finish to last season, Ball transformed his body in the winter and spring, shedding weight to add speed while maintaining his power.
Supporting cast: Ball has the best supporting cast of the four candidates. He runs behind one of the nation's best offensive lines, a group led by NFL prospect Peter Konz. His quarterback, Russell Wilson, is a Heisman Trophy candidate and has brought a new element to Wisconsin's offense. His backup, James White, is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
The quote: "He's definitely our best practice player. Nobody has practice that hard at that position since I've been here." -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema
Quick case for Ball: "Moneyball" is a touchdown-scoring machine and has been absolutely unstoppable for most of the season. Few backs in the country have been more effective than Ball since the middle of last season. He doesn't put the ball on the ground and consistently moves it forward and into the end zone. He didn't rest on his laurels in the offseason and got better physically.
Quick case against Ball: Wisconsin's track record of running the ball probably works against Ball with the other candidates. The Badgers always have a dominant back (or three) and terrific offensive lines. Wilson's presence also has opened things up for Ball in the run game.
Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Plano, Texas
2011 stats: 187 carries for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns, 105.7 ypg, 5.1 ypc, 14 receptions for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns
Things to know: Burkhead has recorded five 100-yard rushing performances in the last seven games, including against two of the nation's better rush defenses in Michigan State and Ohio State. He turned in a heroic performance in the win against the Spartans, carrying 35 times, the third-highest total in team history. ... Burkhead has gotten better as games have gone on. He has 43 fourth-quarter carries and has averaged 6.16 yards in the final quarter. Burkhead had 109 second-half yards and 96 fourth-quarter yards in Nebraska's historic comeback win against Ohio State. ... He has lost just 32 yards on 187 carries. ... Of his 38 carries in the red zone, Burkhead has gained a first down or a touchdown on 15 rushes. He has rushed for at least one touchdown in every game this season. ... Former Texas high school star nicknamed "Superman," Burkhead did a bit of everything for Nebraska in 2010, even taking some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback.
Supporting cast: Burkhead shares a backfield with another rushing threat in quarterback Taylor Martinez, who has 712 rush yards and nine touchdowns this season. While Martinez demands the attention of opposing defenses, he also takes away some carries and scoring opportunities for Burkhead. Nebraska's offensive line entered the season banged-up and extremely young, but the group has come together nicely. The Huskers' passing attack ranks 101st nationally, and Martinez and his receivers have had their ups and downs. After Burkhead and Martinez, no other Nebraska player has more than 25 carries.
The quote: "He might not be the flashiest guy in the world. I wouldn't trade him for anybody. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and how he plays the game." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
Quick case for Burkhead: He's one of the more reliable players in the country and an absolute joy to watch. He doesn't mess around with excessive moves and blends speed and power extremely well. Unlike Ball and Coker, he doesn't operate in an offense with a strong passing threat, and he's produced against some solid defenses.
Quick case against Burkhead: His numbers don't pop off the page like some of the other candidates'. Burkhead's most impressive performance (against MSU) was more of a workmanlike effort (35 carries, 3.7 ypc) than one that wows you. He doesn't have many long runs in Big Ten play (longest is 22 yards).
Vitals: 6-0, 230, sophomore from Beltsville, Md.
2011 stats: 211 carries for 1,101 yards and 12 touchdowns, 122.3 ypg, 5.2 ypc, 15 receptions for 94 yards
Things to know: Coker leads the Big Ten in carries, rushing yards and rushing average (he ranks sixth nationally). ... He has six 100-yard rushing performances this season. His 12 rushing touchdowns tie for the fourth-highest single-season total in team history ... Coker ranks second in the Big Ten and 41st nationally in all-purpose yards (132.8 ypg). ... His 252 rushing yards yards in an Oct. 22 game at Minnesota ranks as third best single-game total in school history. ... He's one of only four backs in Iowa history to record multiple 200-yard rushing performances. ... Coker has eclipsed 120 rush yards and scored two touchdowns in each of his last four games, all against Big Ten opponents.
Supporting cast: Coker runs behind one of the better Big Ten offensive lines, led by NFL draft prospect Riley Reiff at left tackle. Iowa isn't quite as powerful up front as Wisconsin but boasts a better line than both Penn State and Nebraska. Quarterback James Vandenberg has had a very strong season passing the ball, and defenses must respect Iowa's aerial attack and receiving corps, led by star senior Marvin McNutt. Coker has been Iowa's bell cow, as no other Hawkeyes running back has logged more than 18 carries.
The quote: "Marcus is the type of back that makes your offensive line want to block for him. So we definitely love him, and we love blocking for him, and we don't want anyone else back there." -- Iowa center James Ferentz, to The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette
The case for Coker: He leads the Big Ten in rushing and has improved as the season has progressed. He boasts arguably the best combination of power and big-play potential among the candidates, recording six runs of 25 yards or more and three of 41 yards or more. While some of the other candidates are solid, reliable runners, Coker has the rare ability to simply dominate a game.
The case against Coker: He struggled with fumbles at the start of the year and hurt Iowa in its Week 2 loss to Iowa State. He benefits from Iowa's lack of depth at running back and gets more carries than other candidates. He averaged a pedestrian 4.3 yards per rush through Iowa's first five games. He feasted on mostly average defenses.
Vitals: 5-10, 209, sophomore from Norwalk, Conn.
2011 stats: 195 carries for 1,006 yards and 7 touchdowns, 111.8 ypg, 5.2 ypc, eight receptions for 31 yards
Things to know: Redd recorded five consecutive 100-yard games and led all FBS players with 703 rushing yards in October. He averaged 140.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry during the month. He's the first Penn State player to record five consecutive 100-yard games since former All-American Curtis Enis in 1997. ... He already has eclipsed 1,000 rush yards for the season, becoming the 12th Penn State player to do so. ... He already has 118 carries more than he had all of last season and has racked up 28 or more carries in four of Penn State's five Big Ten games. ... He has lost just 19 yards on 195 carries. ... Redd worked on his body during the offseason and added 10-15 pounds to help with an increased workload. He also changed his running style, becoming a more straight-ahead, downhill power back.
Supporting cast: Redd has the weakest supporting cast of the candidates, underscoring how impressive his performance has been this season. Penn State has rotated two quarterbacks all season and had very limited success in the passing game, so the offense relies heavily on Redd to produce. The offensive line is performing better in recent weeks but hasn't been as strong as Wisconsin's and Iowa's, and even Nebraska's. Redd has gotten a bit of help from fellow backs Beachum and Curtis Dukes, but Dukes is second on Penn State's carries list with only 35.
The quote: "He can hurt you with his speed and his elusiveness outside, and he can run between the tackles. He's a pretty complete back." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
The case for Redd: He has been an absolute workhorse for a struggling Penn State offense and transformed himself into a complete back in just his sophomore season. Redd had the most impressive month of any candidate (October), and he did it all against Big Ten competition. He has the weakest supporting cast and, along with Coker, he's clearly his team's main ball-carrier.
The case against Redd: The main knock on Redd is he doesn't score enough touchdowns. He has 14 fewer rush touchdowns than Ball, six fewer than Burkhead and five fewer than Coker. Redd also has had some fumbling issues that have ended promising Penn State drives.