You know the season is getting closer when the position rankings are under way. By now, you've likely seen the group rankings for Big Ten running backs. Now it's time to rank the individual players.
These rankings are based in part on past performance but also on how players project for the 2011 season. The Big Ten loses three of its top four running backs (Mikel Leshoure, John Clay and Adam Robinson) but several promising players return and others are primed for breakout seasons. One thing that stands out about this year's running back crop is the number of non-seniors.
Here's the top 10 entering '11:
1. James White, Wisconsin, sophomore: Wisconsin is no stranger to elite running backs, but White provides a different element to the ground game with his speed and elusiveness. He came out of nowhere to win Wisconsin's backup job in preseason camp and went on to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He finished fourth among Big Ten running backs in rush yards but averaged nearly a yard per carry more than any of them (6.7). White worked on strengthening his lower body in the winter and should be even better this fall.
2. Edwin Baker, Michigan State, junior: The man known as "Rock" flattened the competition for much of 2010, racking up 1,201 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. He boasts breakaway speed but isn't afraid to mix it up between the tackles. Don't be fooled by Baker's 5-foot-9 frame -- he's extremely sturdy and can take a pounding. Although he'll be pushed by teammates Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper, Baker expects to build on the 2010 season and has set even higher goals for the fall. The main challenge for Baker is to record big rushing performances against elite defenses.
3. Montee Ball, Wisconsin, junior: Some might see this as too lofty for Ball, who only came on in the second half of the 2010 season. But what a half-season it was, as he racked up 777 rush yards and 15 touchdowns in Wisconsin's final five games. These rankings aim to project the coming season, and if Ball can build on his finish to 2010, look out. It'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin divides the carries between Ball and White, but you can make a case for Ball as the Badgers' featured back. Like White, Ball worked on his body during the offseason and should be a little lighter on his feet.
4. Dan Herron, Ohio State, senior: Respect hasn't come easy for Herron, especially among Buckeyes fans, but he earned some with his performance in Big Ten play last fall. Herron recorded all three of his 100-yard rushing performances against league opponents (Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. Like Ball, he finished strong with 800 rush yards in the final seven games. Herron also reached the end zone in all but one contest last fall. His five-game suspension to open the season could impact his carries and his ability to compete for postseason awards, but Ohio State shouldn't dismiss "Boom."
5. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, junior: Expect big things from Burkhead in Nebraska's first season as a Big Ten member. He turned in a solid performance as a sophomore, recording 951 rush yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards a carry. Although Burkhead can be used in a variety of ways in the offense, he's a good bet to become Nebraska's featured running back after a strong spring. He seemed to grasp the new offense well and will challenge Big Ten defenses with his speed. While Burkhead will be pushed by heralded incoming recruit Aaron Green and others, he seems ready for a breakout season.
6. Marcus Coker, Iowa, sophomore: It's dangerous to take too much from one game, but Coker looked like the real deal in the Insight Bowl. Starting for the suspended Robinson, Coker earned bowl MVP honors with a record 219 rush yards and two touchdowns against Missouri. He showed speed on a 62-yard score, but he looks like a true power back who should only improve over time. Coker drew good reviews in spring practice and was elected to the Iowa's Leadership Council, a good sign. Iowa isn't deep at running back, so Coker will have plenty of opportunities to showcase himself this fall.
7. Ralph Bolden, Purdue, junior: A lot depends on how Bolden performs following a lengthy ACL rehab, but unlike some others on this list, he has proven himself as a featured back in the Big Ten. Bolden started all 12 games in 2009 and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after finishing third in the league in rushing average (77.9 ypg) and second in rushing touchdowns (11). He also can be effective as a receiver after recording 20 receptions for 261 yards in 2009. Bolden fought back from an ACL injury in high school and performed well. Can he do it again?
8. Silas Redd, Penn State, sophomore: This is another projection pick, a player who did some impressive things in 2010 but should contribute much more this coming season. Penn State needs a featured back after Evan Royster's departure, and Redd has the tools to fill the void. He averaged 5.7 yards a carry as a freshman and finished with 437 rush yards despite somewhat limited opportunities. Redd's speed and quickness give him a chance to be special, but he'll need to show he can take a pounding as an every-down back. He'll be pushed by both Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, but we expect Redd to enter the fall as Penn State's No. 1 back.
9. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State, sophomore: Until hitting the proverbial freshman wall last October, Bell was one of the Big Ten's best running backs. He racked up 549 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Spartans' first six games. While Bell didn't do much down the stretch, another offseason in the program should help him immensely. At 6-2 and 237 pounds, Bell has the body to become a featured back in this league. And despite his size, he showed last fall that he can record big plays. Bell certainly has to prove himself again, but you have to like his chances.
10. Jason Ford, Illinois, senior: Ford has more game experience than most of the men on this list. His career numbers include 277 carries, 19 rush touchdowns and 1,362 rush yards to go along with 27 career receptions. Ford's career yards-per-carry average of 4.92 also stands out. The big question is whether he can take the next step and become an every-down back for Illinois, which wants to run the ball and boasts one of the league's best offensive lines. Ford was limited this spring and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to see more from him, but coach Ron Zook sounds like a believer. He's a big back who has a chance for a big senior season.