- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Last week, I took a look at the quarterbacks who were most likely to break the 3,000-yard mark in the Big Ten in 2012.
As we all know, the 1,000-yard mark has long been the measuring stick for running backs. Getting there is not quite as tough as it used to be. If a team makes a bowl and plays 13 games, a running back only has to average a little less than 77 yards per game to get into quadruple figures. Still, it requires staying healthy at a position where one takes a lot of abuse and getting the opportunity for lots of carries.
The Big Ten has always been known as a run-first league, so it's not a big surprise that six players surpassed 1,000 yards rushing in 2011. Of those, five are back, with only Iowa's Marcus Coker (transferred to Stony Brook) departing.
I won't bore you by listing guys like Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, Michigan's Fitz Toussaint and Penn State's Silas Redd, who seem like mortal locks to rush for 1,000 yards assuming they stay healthy. But here's a look at 10 other players who could challenge for 1,000 yards rushing this year, in order of likelihood:
1. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State: Bell got close last year, rushing for 948 yards despite not taking over full-time carries until midway through the year. He looks primed for a huge year and could be a breakout superstar given his development and an improved Spartans O-line. Count on Bell breaking the 1K mark for the first time in his career.
2. Denard Robinson, Michigan: Interesting case here, as Robinson ran for more than 1,700 yards two years ago and 1,176 yards in 2011. Clearly, Michigan is trying to reduce his carries, and Toussaint's emergence could mean fewer running opportunities for Shoelace. But he's still too special with the ball in his hands, so I say he gets more than 1,000 again, though Robinson could have fewer running yards than last season.
3. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota: The Gophers' quarterback ran for 966 yards last year despite missing some time. He's athletic and huge, making him a nightmare to tackle down the field. Minnesota expects junior-college transfer James Gillum to help in the running game. But with a still-suspect passing attack, I think Gray could get plenty of opportunities to take off and run.
4. Unnamed Iowa back: Coker was a workhorse for the Hawkeyes last year, and the program has all kinds of misfortune at the position, including Jordan Canzeri's torn anterior cruciate ligament this offseason. So who knows who exactly emerges as a go-to tailback for Iowa? Still, coach Kirk Ferentz likes to run the ball, and I believe someone will end up getting a lot of carries this season. If that happens early enough, it might just equal 1,000 yards.
5. Akeem Shavers, Purdue: Shavers is looking like the top running option for the Boilermakers after a big bowl performance and a strong spring. If Ralph Bolden can't come all the way back from yet another knee injury, Shavers is in line to get the bulk of the carries. But the presence of Bolden, Akeem Hunt and others could mean a running-back-by-committee approach that would hurt the chances of any one back getting to 1,000.
6. Stephen Houston, Indiana: Houston piled up 802 rushing yards despite not arriving until the summer and not being used as the primary back right away. He has the talent to put up big stats in Indiana's offense. But the Hoosiers actually have a lot of depth in the backfield, including a mobile quarterback in Tre Roberson, and that could cut into Houston's carries.
7. Braxton Miller, Ohio State: Miller led the Buckeyes in rushing with 715 yards last season even though he wasn't the starter early on. He ran for at least 90 yards in five games and has great moves in the open field. Miller is likely to pass more in coach Urban Meyer's system, but don't be surprised if he is still running it a lot, too.
8. James White, Wisconsin: White is the only running back on this list who already has a 1,000-yard season under his belt -- he ran for 1,052 as a freshman. His numbers dipped to 713 rushing yards last year as Ball went nuts, and he'll remain the second option this year. But Wisconsin runs it so well that multiple 1,000-yard rushers is a possibility, and White is just a Ball injury away from being the guy behind the Thick Red Line.
9. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska: Martinez has flirted with 1,000 before, going for 965 as a freshman and 874 in 2011. He is a dangerous open-field runner. It seems more likely that he'll run the ball less as Nebraska looks to improve its passing game this season. But he's always a threat to take off.
10. Kain Colter, Northwestern: This is our fourth quarterback on the list already, which gives you an idea of how many mobile QBs there are in this league. Colter ran for 654 yards while filling a variety of roles for the Wildcats last season and should be the full-time starting quarterback this season. He's a great athlete. The only question is how much Northwestern will want to keep him in the pocket with a deep receiving corps supporting him.
11hMax Olson and Jake Trotter