Big Ten boasts talented running backs

The conference is home to the top four rushers in the country this season.

by Jack Satzinger

When Georgia running back Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely earlier this month for allegedly violating NCAA rules, it opened up the race for the Heisman Trophy.

Gurley, who has rushed for 773 yards over five games this season, was a front-runner for the award.

But Gurley’s suspension has also given relevance to the Big Ten, a conference that has had a hard time gaining respect this season with once prominent programs like Michigan and Penn State struggling.

Entering this weekend, the top four rushers in the country are all from the Big Ten. Indiana’s Tevin Coleman leads the pack with 1,192 rushing yards, followed by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Minnesota’s David Cobb. 

When asked why the conference is dominating the rushing statistics this year, Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover struggled to find a concrete reason.

“It’s hard for me to say,” he said. “I think that the other offensive coordinators of those three schools — Indiana, Nebraska and Wisconsin — … do a great job of taking great players and putting them in a position to succeed. I think it’s showing, and I just hope David can stay in there.”

Gurley, along with Abdullah and Gordon, was projected to be one of the nation’s top running backs entering the season. With Gurley on the sidelines, Abdullah and Gordon are still at the forefront of the national running back discussion, and now Cobb and Coleman have joined them.

“There’s a lot of guys whose names aren’t thrown to the forefront,” Abdullah said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “Me and Melvin [Gordon] are thrown up there because statistically we finished off pretty strong last year. … Across the board, I think we have really good backs in this conference.”

 Aside from Gurley’s absence, it’s difficult to pinpoint why the Big Ten’s running backs are thriving. But it’s not very hard to see why Cobb is now one of the nation’s top five rushers after being a benchwarmer just over a season ago.

The Killeen, Texas, native leads the country in rushing attempts at 189 in seven games played.

The high number of carries is surprising, especially given the other talented running backs Minnesota has on its roster. All offseason, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill raved about junior Rodrick Williams playing with a chip on his shoulder.

He hasn’t registered a carry since last month.

Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards was advertised as someone who could stretch the defense with his breakneck speed.

But in Big Ten play, Edwards has just three carries for minus-2 yards.

Senior running back Donnell Kirkwood, the Gophers’ starting running back before being usurped by Cobb, has just 32 rushing yards this season.

Kill has called Cobb his “workhorse.” And while he has become one of the country’s most recognizable rushers, the Gophers other running backs’ touches have dwindled.

“When you have a kid that’s going like David is … he never looks like he needs to tap his helmet to come out,” Limegrover said. “It’s just a matter of we’ve got a guy that’s really feeling it right now.”

Cobb has repeatedly said he doesn’t get tired of the extra carries since he barely played in his first two collegiate seasons.

His willingness to shoulder the load — and do it well — has not only put Minnesota in the conversation for a division title, but it has also helped the Big Ten show that it’s elite at running the ball.

“I don’t think [Cobb’s] ever going to complain like, ‘Oh, too many carries,’” redshirt sophomore tight end Maxx Williams said.

“He’s a running back. He wants the ball. He wants to go out there and make plays like all of us.”