Big Ten position rankings: Running backs

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The position rankings switch over to offense. Before examining the all-important quarterback position, which should be better in the Big Ten this fall, here's a look at the running backs.

The Big Ten was absolutely loaded at running back last fall, boasting two of the three finalists for the Doak Walker Award (Shonn Greene and Javon Ringer) and three of the nation's top six rushers. Five of the league's top six rushers depart, and several teams need to find new lead ballcarriers.

I really like the top four groups, and other teams should answer some lingering questions early this season.

1. Penn State -- Evan Royster flew somewhat under the radar last year but turned in a fabulous sophomore season, racking up 1,236 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on just 191 carries. Royster wants a more featured role this fall and might get one, though Penn State has the luxury of spreading out the carries. Stephfon Green should have a better sophomore season as long as his ankle holds up, and sophomores Brent Carter and Brandon Beachum provide depth.

2. Wisconsin -- Despite losing the underappreciated P.J. Hill, Wisconsin once again is stacked in the offensive backfield. John Clay can become a superstar in this league as long as he maintains a decent weight, and Zach Brown might be the league's top backup. The Badgers are also excited about incoming freshman Montee Ball, a very productive high school back. Clay ranked seventh in the league in rushing last fall despite playing behind Hill.

3. Michigan -- This is without a doubt Michigan's strongest unit and one that must perform consistently for the offense to succeed. Senior Brandon Minor looks primed for an All-Big Ten season after a strong finish to 2008, a season during which he played through several injuries. Senior Carlos Brown and sophomore Michael Shaw are also healthy, and freshman Vincent Smith turned heads during spring ball with his quickness.

4. Ohio State -- Replacing Chris "Beanie" Wells isn't easy, but Wells' injury problems created opportunities for his successors to see the field in 2008. Dan Herron and Brandon Saine both performed well in spring ball and will share the carries load, with Herron expected to be the starter. Depth is a bit of concern behind the top two, though heralded incoming freshman Jaamal Berry appears to have avoided major punishment for his marijuana possession arrest and should be a factor this fall.

5. Illinois -- The team that led the Big Ten in rushing in 2006 and 2007 will be back near the top this fall. Sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both improved physically during the offseason, and head coach Ron Zook isn't counting out senior Daniel Dufrene, who endured some problems last year. New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz has an excellent track record of developing standout backs.

6. Iowa -- I'm a little hesitant to put the Hawkeyes this high without knowing that Jewel Hampton will be good to go Sept. 5 after sustaining a knee injury this summer. Hampton performed well behind Greene last fall and needs to be on the field for Iowa. Reserves Jeff Brinson and Paki O'Meara provide depth, and Iowa's offensive line should be able to create running room for just about anybody.

7. Purdue -- Spring practice certainly lifted my hopes for this unit, as sophomore Ralph Bolden sizzled alongside Dan Dierking. Purdue also gets veteran Jaycen Taylor back and heralded freshman Al-Terek McBurse on the field, and new head coach Danny Hope wisely wants to emphasize the run game in a slightly tweaked offense. A few ifs remain with this group, which needs Bolden to perform in games and Taylor to get healthy, but I like what I see.

8. Michigan State -- The Spartans could climb the rankings this fall, but they have too many unknowns at running back entering camp. No Big Ten offense relied on one player as much as Michigan State did with Ringer last fall, and none of the reserves has really stepped up to claim the starting job. Ashton Leggett or Caulton Ray could emerge during camp, but most believe heralded incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will emerge as the top backs.

9. Indiana -- The Hoosiers installed the pistol offense primarily to get more out of their run game, which wasn't half bad last season. Marcus Thigpen will be missed, but the offensive line should be healthier and better in 2009. Veterans Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray get their chance to shine, but most eyes will be on redshirt freshman Darius Willis, a heralded recruit who showed good signs this spring.

10. Minnesota -- Tim Brewster wants to make Minnesota a running back's haven again, and he made several moves to transform the offense, including hiring coordinator Jedd Fisch and line coach Tim Davis. I like Brewster's plan, but it might be a little ambitious to expect major results this season. Duane Bennett's return from a torn ACL should boost Minnesota, and the Gophers boast good depth with DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley, who performed well in the spring game.

11. Northwestern -- History favors the Wildcats, who have churned out excellent backs throughout the spread offense era (2000-present). But Northwestern returns virtually no experience at the position after losing four-year starter Tyrell Sutton and backup Omar Conteh. Junior Stephen Simmons boasts top-end speed and I liked what I saw from Jeravin Matthews this spring, but the Wildcats' backs have a lot to prove this fall.