Big Ten year-end running back rankings

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The rankings started with arguably the Big Ten's most disappointing position and now move on to its most dominant one. No conference boasted a better crop of running backs than the Big Ten, which had three players ranked in the top seven nationally in rushing and another ranked 26th.

These rankings will be slightly different from the other positions because this group of backs should be evaluated in two ways: 2008 performance/value to their team and overall ability/pro potential.

Here's a refresher of my preseason rankings, which weren't as bad as the quarterbacks but had one notable omission (some dude named Shonn Greene).

1. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State
2. Javon Ringer, Michigan State
3. P.J. Hill, Wisconsin
4. Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern
5. Evan Royster, Penn State
6. Kory Sheets, Purdue
7. Jaycen Taylor, Purdue
8. Marcus Thigpen, Indiana
9. Stephfon Green, Penn State
10. Lance Smith-Williams, Wisconsin*
*-Rankings done before dismissal from team

Running back rankings (2008 performance/value to team)

1. Shonn Greene, Iowa -- The Doak Walker Award winner was clearly the nation's top running back this fall, setting an Iowa single-season record with 1,729 rushing yards and eclipsing 100 yards in every game. Greene's size, strength and durability made him a major problem for opposing defenders.

2. Javon Ringer, Michigan State -- You could argue no player was more valuable to his team than Ringer, who took on an incredible load (nation-high 370 carries) and continued to produce. After splitting carries with Jehuu Caulcrick and losing out on scoring opportunities the last two seasons, Ringer tied for the national lead in scoring (10.5 points per game) and ranked third in rushing.

3. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State -- His presence made a major difference, both from a production standpoint and a leadership standpoint. Ohio State's best on-field leader was sorely missed at USC, and he returned to put up big numbers in only nine games. Wells finished seventh nationally in rushing with seven 100-yard games.

4. Evan Royster, Penn State -- Royster made the most of limited carries and became Penn State's primary rushing threat. An intelligent and incredibly patient runner, Royster used his blockers well and showed impressive burst despite running primarily between the tackles. He had five 100-yard rushing performances. It would be interesting to see how he would fare with a full load of carries.

5. Kory Sheets, Purdue -- Despite playing on a struggling offense, Sheets turned in a very strong senior season, both as a rusher and a receiver out of the backfield. He ranked fifth in the league in rushing and sixth in all-purpose yards. Sheets also tied Greene with 17 touchdowns (16 rush, 1 pass).

6. John Clay, Wisconsin -- No disrespect to P.J. Hill, but Wisconsin was a much better offense when Clay complemented the rushing attack. Clay's size and ferocious running style were a joy to watch, and the redshirt freshman will only get better with more experience.

7. P.J. Hill, Wisconsin -- The junior eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the third consecutive season and finished strong with three 100-yard rushing performances in his final four games. He didn't have much help from the quarterback spot for the first half of the season and his production dropped along with the team's in early October.

8. Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern -- Sutton once again couldn't avoid the injury bug and missed the final four games with a broken left wrist. Before the injury, he was extremely solid as both a runner and a receiver. Playing in an offense that struggled to get on track at times, Sutton averaged five yards a carry and finished fourth on the team in receptions (30).

9. Marcus Thigpen, Indiana -- It was a real struggle for Indiana's injury-prone offense this fall, but Thigpen did his part in the backfield and on kickoff returns. The senior averaged 6.7 yards a carry and accounted for nine touchdowns (7 rush, 2 receiving).

10. Stephfon Green, Penn State -- Royster dominated the spotlight in Happy Valley, but Green showed glimpses of his top-shelf speed, rushing for 521 yards with four touchdowns. He proved to be a valuable option in the passing game, catching 10 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. His role should increase next season.

Running back rankings (overall ability/pro potential)

1. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State -- He will be the first or second running back selected in the NFL draft if he chooses to forgo his senior season at Ohio State (I'd be shocked if he didn't make the jump).

2. Shonn Greene, Iowa -- His size and powerful running style will translate well at the next level. It would be nice to see him catch a few more passes, but he was durable and consistent throughout the season. Like Wells, it would be surprising if Greene stayed for his senior season.

3. Javon Ringer, Michigan State -- Despite concerns about his size, Ringer showed he can take a pounding and be effective in short-yardage situations. His production as a junior and a senior combined with an outstanding personality make him attractive to NFL teams.

4. Evan Royster, Penn State -- He likely will enter 2009 as the Big Ten's premier running back. Whether he ever carries the ball 25 or more times a game remains to be seen, but his patient running style and yards-per-carry average put him among the nation's elite.

5. John Clay, Wisconsin -- Maybe I'm buying in too soon on Clay, but his combination of size, speed and quickness set him apart from most backs.
He'll likely share carries with Hill next season but could be one of the nation's premier backs in 2009.

6. Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern -- Health is a concern, but Sutton's pass-catching skills make him a good pick as a third-down back. He doesn't have elite speed but runs hard and will get extra yards.

7. Kory Sheets, Purdue -- A very similar player to Sutton, Sheets can beat you out of the backfield or as a receiver. He has good size and seemed to solve his fumbling problem this season.

8. P.J. Hill, Wisconsin -- Injuries are the big reason why Hill isn't higher, though he's still been able to rush for 1,000 yards in all three of his seasons at Wisconsin. His size and strength certainly translate well to the next level, and if he stays healthy as a senior, his stock could rise.

9. Stephfon Green, Penn State -- We still need to see a lot more out of Green, who might find himself behind Royster for the next two years. He clearly has tremendous speed and breakaway ability but needs to show the versatility to run between the tackles.

10. Jewel Hampton, Iowa -- Get ready to see a whole lot of Hampton in 2009 if Greene enters the NFL draft. He capitalized on limited opportunities this season but showed glimpses of what it takes to be a standout back in the Big Ten.