Now that summer has nearly hit — it’s finals week at Northwestern — we’re inching closer and closer to football. This post marks the start of our newest series: a look at how each of the Wildcats’ units stands put up against other units in the Big Ten. Next up is the running backs.
Overall, the Big Ten is projected to be better this year than it was in 2012, but at running back, it's a mixed bag. Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead all leave, but there's a good amount of talent returning, as well. The Big Ten is known for having good running backs, and this year's group should be solid, even if it can't quite be great. There's a good mix of power and speed backs, young guys and veterans, and it will be interesting to see if some talented players like Carlos Hyde, James White and Ameer Abdullah can turn into stars. If everyone lives up to their potential, this group may end up being even better than last year's group from top to bottom, though there's plenty of work to be done.
Teams to Watch (NU Excluded)
Ohio State — Braxton Miller gest most of the hype on the Ohio State offense, but Hyde is a very talented player, as well. He has yet to be a star, and with a budding star lining up under center, he'll likely never be the featured player of the Buckeyes' offense. However, he should break the 1,000-yard marker in 2013 after coming close in 2012. Hyde will be the featured player, but he'll get help from speedster Jordan Hall and fellow bruiser Rod Smith.
Nebraska — The Cornhuskers lose Rex Burkhead, and while that's obviously not ideal, they have a pretty good outlook at running back heading into next season. Ameer Abdullah was very impressive filling in for Burkhead last year, and now he'll get the featured role. He has the potential to be a first team All-Big Ten player down the road — maybe even this year, but he may be overlooked for not getting enough touches — and his backup, Imani Cross, is a big back who will give him plenty of support.
Wisconsin — Lose Montee Ball? No big deal, Wisconsin returns another former 1,000-yard rusher. James White showed a lot of promise early in his career, but he got overshadowed by Ball, and now has one more chance to be the star player he certainly has the potential to be — we saw some of that potential in last year's drubbing of Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game. Melvin Gordon also showed promise as the Badgers' No. 3 running back last year, and he figures to play a fairly big role as White's backup, especially considering Wisconsin's questions in the passing game.
Players to Watch (NU Excluded)
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska — As I mentioned above, I really like Abdullah. I think he's going to be first team All-Big Ten someday, and while he might be good enough to earn that honor this year, he may not get enough touches for it to happen. He's a very versatile back who is still improving, and look for him to potentially break out this season.
James White, Wisconsin — Is this White's year to shine? He'll get ample opportunities. He's expected to be Wisconsin's No. 1 back heading into the fall and he'll get plenty of touches due to the questions surrounding the Badgers' passing game. If he lives up to his potential, he could end up on first team All-Big Ten lists at the end of the season.
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State — As we mentioned above, Hyde has never been a bona fide star, and he isn't expected to take on that role this year — that's Braxton Miller's role. However, he's a very capable back who is likely to break the 1,000-yard mark if given the opportunity this season.
Iowa — AIRBHG will probably smite Iowa after seeing this written, but despite all the issues at running back in the past few years, the Hawkeyes actually have the potential to have a really good backfield in 2013... if, IF everyone can stay healthy. In fact, Iowa could have a three-headed monster in Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. You remember Weisman — the running back-turned-fullback became a folk hero in Iowa City after rushing for 623 yards in four games early in the season. However, he struggled with injuries for much of the year. Bullock was good-not-great last year and should excel more in his role as a slot receiver/speedster, not an all-around back. Canzeri is a speedster who was projected to be last year's starter before, of course, tearing his ACL in the spring. Iowa also gets back Barkley Hill, who impressed as a true freshman before — you guessed it — tearing his ACL in fall camp. If everyone stays healthy, Iowa's running backs should turn some heads. However, AIRBHG is cruel, so the saga may never end.
Where Does NU Fit In?
Most people will rank NU's running backs in the top four this season, along with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Heading into the year, Venric Mark will be on most All-Big Ten teams, so the Wildcats will have a lot of respect. However, some might rank Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska over NU because of the perception that they'll likely spread out their carries more and have more options. But that perception isn't really true. The Wildcats have a proven backup in Trumpy — he's probably the most proven backup running back any team has, though not the most talented — and two freshmen in Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley who should see some time. With that combination of depth and returning talent, we have NU at the top of our preseason rankings. But Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska are all close behind.
Way Too Early All-Big Ten Team
1. Venric Mark (Northwestern), 2. Carlos Hyde (Ohio State), 3. James White (Wisconsin), 4. Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska)
Way Too Early Power Rankings
1. Northwestern, 2. Wisconsin, 3. Ohio State, 4. Nebraska, 5. Michigan, 6. Iowa, 7. Penn State, 8. Indiana, 9. Illinois, 10. Minnesota; Too Early to Judge — Michigan State, Purdue