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How To Replace 3 Legendary Big Ten Running Backs

Three legendary Big Ten running backs who were finalists for the Doak Walker Award are now gone. How is each team working to replace their departed stars.

One of the overlooked topics of the 2014 season was the fact that the Big Ten did something that had never been done before in 2014, as Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon ran wild on their way to being named the three finalists for the Doak Walker award. But now its is 2015, and all three stars are battling for starting spots in the NFL. Indiana, Nebraska, and Wisconsin had no option but to move on and try to form new stars, and after week one the results are mixed.

How To Replace 3 Legendary Big Ten Running Backs

Nebraska: From “Fear Ameer” to “Watch out for Wilbon”

It is hard to put into words how much Ameer Abdullah meant to Nebraska the past three years. In 2012, Abdullah exploded on to the scene after an injury sidelined Rex Burkhead, rushing for over 1,000 yards and helping lead Nebraska to the Big Ten championship game. The following season, Abdullah saved the Huskers season after Taylor Martinez was lost for the year, rushing for almost 1,700 yards despite being the focal point of every defense’s game plan.

2014 was supposed to be Ameer’s Heisman year, and the senior from Homewood, Alabama didn’t disappoint, rushing for over 200 yards in three of the first five games and catching a dramatic game winning touchdown against McNeese State that was the top play of the early portion of the 2014 season. Unfortunately, a sprained MCL cost Abdullah most of the Purdue game and limited him against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Despite injuries and a lack of consistent pass game, Abdullah still managed to rush for over 1,600 yards and finished with 2,272 all purpose yards in the 2014 season. Abdullah left Nebraska as the career all-purpose yardage leader with 7,186 yards, as well as the second all-time rusher at Nebraska with 4,226 yards. Abdullah was a second round pick for the Detroit Lions, and he lit up the majority of the preseason and looks primed for a highly successful NFL career.

Nebraska’s first attempt at replacing him didn’t end well, as the Huskers lost their first season opener since 1985 to the BYU Cougars, 33-28. The running backs in particular struggled, as the three man stable of Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, and Mikale Wilbon combined for 23 carries and 91 yards, good enough for a mediocre 3.9 yard , and a single touchdown. Newby finished the game with the best stats, rushing ten times for 43 yards and one touchdown, but the most impressive running back wearing scarlet & cream last Saturday was a 5’8″ redshirt freshman named Mikale Wilbon. Wilbon finished with six carries for only 14 yards, but he showed impressive vision and open field agility early and showed serious potential as a receiver, catching two passes for 28 yards.

Indiana: Smooth Sailing with Jordan Howard

No one outside of Bloomington, Indiana saw Tevin Coleman coming. The junior from Oak Forest, Illinois had rushed for just under 1,000 yards in 2013 while averaging 7.3 yards per carry, but Indiana’s poor record (5-7) and identity as a pass happy team made it hard for him to get noticed. Coleman made sure that wasn’t the case in 2014, as the junior exploded for 247 yards on just 23 carries in a season opening victory over Indiana State. Coleman continued his hot streak, rushing for 190 yards against Bowling Green and 132 against Missouri.

Despite losing quarterback Nate Sudfield midway through the season to a shoulder injury and seeing the Hoosier passing game sink to abysmal levels for the remainder of the 2014 season, Coleman continued to be effective, running for over 100 yards in all but one game. Coleman had 200 yard rushing efforts in losses to Iowa and Ohio State while also rushing for over 300 yards in a loss to Rutgers. He finished his historic 2014 campaign with 2,036 yards rushing, shattering the Indiana single-season rushing record previously held by Vaughn Dunbar. Coleman was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the third round of the NFL Draft, and he appears to have solidified his spot in the running back rotation with Devonta Freeman.

Indiana seems to have found their replacement for Coleman in junior running back Jordan Howard. The 6’1″ 230 pound UAB transfer looked fantastic in his IU debut, rushing for 145 yards and three touchdowns while averaging over seven yards per carry. The Hoosiers needed every bit of Howard’s contributions, as the Hoosiers struggled mightily against the FCS Southern Illinois Salukis, winning 48-47 after the Salukis failed to convert what would have been a game-winning two point conversion with 18 seconds remaining in the game. While Howard isn’t nearly as explosive as the departed Coleman, he is a physical inside runner that gives the Hoosiers a fantastic complement to senior quarterback Nate Sudfield.

Wisconsin: Rough start to Corey Clement era

Melvin Gordon was supposed to be good in 2014, but I don’t think anyone thought he would be THAT good. The redshirt junior began the season with a 140 yard performance against a traditionally formidable LSU defense and never looked back, rushing for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns on his way to winning the Doak Walker Award as well as the Big Ten offensive player of the year.

Midway through his 2014 campaign, Gordon broke the NCAA single game rushing record set in 1999 by Ladainian Tomlinson, as Gordon rushed for 408 yards on 25 carries against Nebraska. What made his record breaking day was the fact that Gordon set the record despite playing only three quarters in the Badgers blowout victory over the 16th-ranked Cornhuskers. Gordon finished his career with a 251 yard performance in the Badgers win over Auburn in the Outback bowl, finishing just 41 yards shy of Barry Sanders single-season rushing record. Gordon would be picked in the first round of the draft by the San Diego Chargers and appears to have the starting job locked down.

Junior running back Corey Clement was peppered with questions about his ability to fill the shoes of Gordon during the offseason. After all, that’s what happens when you are the replacement for the best running back in Wisconsin history. Clement seemed to relish the newfound attention, filling the airwaves with quotes and predictions about his upcoming season. From comparing Nebraska to a flip phone and stating that anything less than 2,000 yards wasn’t good enough for his upcoming season, Clement was fantastic at talking the talk.

When it came to walk the walk however, Clement struggled, and did so in front of a national primetime audience, running for just 16 yards on eight carries in Wisconsin’s loss to number three Alabama. Clement played sparingly in the first half and missed the majority of the 2nd half as well, as it was later reported that the junior was battling a groin injury coming into the game. As a team, the Badgers could only muster 40 yards rushing against the Crimson Tide.

Why Indiana’s method worked and Nebraska & Wisconsin’s Didn’t

Indiana, Nebraska, and Wisconsin all used different methods to attempt to replace their departed stars. Indiana found the top immediately eligible running back transfer in Jordan Howard and allowed him to take over as the Hoosiers featured back. The Cornhuskers used a sum of all parts approach, using a rotation of Ameer’s backups to try to compensate. Wisconsin meanwhile went to their usual method of replacing great running backs by giving the ball to the understudy and letting him go to work. So why did Indiana’s method work while the Huskers and Badgers fail?

The most obvious reason is quality of competition, Wisconsin played arguably the top defense in the nation last Saturday, as the Crimson Tide returned seven starters from the 12th best defense in 2014. Nebraska played BYU, a team notorious for running a complex defense that shifts between a 3-4 and 4-3 and has traditionally been a solid outfit. Indiana meanwhile played the Southern Illinois Salukis, an FCS team coming off a 6-6 season. Now the Salukis are a decent FCS team, but they are nowhere near on the level of BYU or Alabama in terms of athleticism and depth.

The less obvious, and much more shocking reason is that Indiana has the best offensive line of the three teams. This is shocking to hear from most college football fans. Nebraska is the team with the legendary pipeline and Wisconsin consistently churns out fantastic offensive linemen year in and year out, but this year’s Hoosier offensive line is better than the 2015 Huskers and Badgers.

The Hoosiers returned three starters from the 2014 offensive line that paved the way for the ninth-best rushing attack in the nation. The unit is led by senior left tackle Jason Spriggs, a four-year starter and junior guard Dan Feeney, a freshman All-American in 2012 who bounced back from a 2013 foot injury to lead the Hoosiers in knockdown blocks in 2014. The Hoosiers O-line is big, experienced, and nasty and may be the third best offensive line in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Michigan State.

The Cornhuskers returned just one starter on their offensive line in left tackle Alex Lewis. The remaining spots were filled by a former walk on in Dylan Utter at left guard, a talented but injury prone center in Ryne Reeves, 2014’s super sub on the offensive line Chongo Kondolo, and a talented but inexperienced redshirt freshman in Nick Gates. This young offensive line struggled to gel early against a talented BYU defense but started to improve in the second half. Unfortunately, the line failed to get a push when the Huskers needed it most, failing to convert two third and short situations and giving the ball back to BYU.

No team in the Big 10 lost more on the offensive line than the Wisconsin Badgers, as Dallas Lewallen, Kyle Costigan, and Rob Havenstein graduated. These seniors weren’t the most athletically gifted bunch of lineman, but they were a massive bunch that worked incredibly well together when running blocking schemes. Those three seniors were the unsung heroes of a Badger rushing attack that finished third in the nation in 2014. The Badgers have recruited well at the offensive line position, but Michael Deiter, Walker Williams, and Hayden Biegel couldn’t get any push against the Alabama defense.

Final Thoughts

As of right now, Indiana is in the best shape at the running back position, and it really isn’t that close. Jordan Howard wasn’t flashy, but he was a physical and effective runner that complemented Nate Sudfield well on Indiana’s offense. But we are only one game into the season, and things could change very quickly. Wisconsin’s first concern is to get Corey Clement healthy. When he’s 100% he can be very effective, as evidenced by his 949 yard season in 2014. Nebraska’s offensive line needs to continue to mature and work together, and one of the backs in their three-man rotation needs to emerge as the go-to guy in key situations.

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