It looks to be a promising year for Big Ten running backs in 2018. Yes, the star of the conference will have to wait on the back burner for another year, as Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor is only a true sophomore and isn’t eligible for 2019. But regardless, there’s a nice blend of ability and experience in the position group this season.
With a full season left to play, plenty can (and will) change for these running backs and their resumes for the next level. Some may not even enter the 2019 NFL Draft prospect pool, as several have more than one remaining year of eligibility. But as things stand entering the season, here are the five best draft eligible running back prospects in the Big Ten in 2018.
1. Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon is an exciting rusher who has big play abilities. With such low mileage at this stage of his college career (247 carries), Higdon figures to have fresh legs in a continued backfield timeshare with RB Chris Evans. Higdon pairs an aggressive mentality between the tackles with very good long speed, allowing him to run over or around defenders in one on one situations. Equally as important is Higdon’s patience in pressing the line of scrimmage: he allows blocks to develop before cutting into the second level.
Higdon may never see top tier production with the arrival of QB Shea Patterson and the workload split with Evans, but all the desirable traits of a big-time rusher are here. One area of concern that Higdon will have trouble alleviating as the draft process nears is questions and skepticism about his durability. Higdon is a lean 200 pounds and although he saw most of the carries for Michigan last year, he did so with just 164 attempts.
Needs to improve: Easing durability concerns
2. Mike Weber, Ohio State
Weber experienced a bit of a disappointing year in 2017, yielding the starting job to (then) freshman J.K. Dobbins and seeing his workload fall to just 101 carries a year after he tore through the Big Ten for nearly 1200 all purpose yards as a redshirt freshman. But the hamstring injury that put Weber behind schedule and ultimately cost him his starting job is now a thing of the past.
And with renewed health come renewed expectations. The Buckeyes will have a new QB behind center this fall, so Dobbins and Weber both figure to be in play for big seasons. For Weber, the 5-10, 214 pound back will be looking to remind scouts of his explosiveness in the open field. Against Michigan State last season, Weber took two carries up the gut and broke several pursuit angles on his way to long touchdown runs. Add in a compact set of pads, effective leg drive in traffic and contact balance? There’s ample reason to see why Weber could be a lead back in the NFL someday.
With Dobbins playing this year as just a true sophomore, Weber will be a strong candidate to make the jump in 2019, should he have a strong season this year.
Needs to improve: Lateral cut efficiency
3. Ty Johnson, Maryland
Johnson is something of a forgotten man, as he doesn’t play for one of the traditional powers in the conference. But Johnson, who boasts of almost 1900 rushing yards on an out-manned Terps offense the last two seasons, has some exciting qualities that he will be showcasing for one more season in College Park.
Johnson has a thick lower half, which allows him to pinball his way off of would be tacklers, particularly against challenges that come laterally. The ability to sustain yards after contact isn’t reliant on just balance, however. Johnson illustrates an active free arm and will create a sliver of space for himself when rushing in high traffic areas to slip away.
Johnson, who also contributes on special teams, is a big play weapon who thrives with the ball in his hands. He does need work in some of the secondary areas of the position (most notably receiving the ball), but as a pure rusher, there’s a strong foundation present.
Needs to improve: Pass catching
4. L.J. Scott, Michigan State
After a promising freshman season (699 yards and 11 TDs) in 2015, the collective Big Ten has been waiting on L.J. Scott to solidify himself as a top talent. We’re still waiting. Scott experienced a career low 4.5 yards per carry on 201 rushes (a career high) last season, not showing the kind of patience or acceleration that has put several of his contemporaries ahead of him on this list.
Instead, Scott feels like a power back who can grind out tough yardage but is going to leave anyone hoping for a feature role wanting more. At 6-1 and 229 pounds, Scott can fill the power back niche with ease. He’s very effective in dropping his pad level and pushing a defender out of the gap, falling forward for tough yardage and ensuring the sticks keep moving.
But too many times Scott has gotten the ball in space and simply plowed into the nearest defender, even if there was a blocker in front of him who could have set up a block. Scott currently projects best between the tackles -- he doesn’t have the explosiveness at this size to be a springy outside rusher.
Needs to improve: Patience to allow blocks to develop and ball security
5. Rodney Smith, Minnesota
Solid, but unspectacular. That’s the impression Smith leaves upon viewing his film. He’s a fun runner who is decisive in his cuts, showing confidence in his read of pursuit angles before getting north and taking available yardage. But Smith isn’t an explosive or dynamic athlete, so the ultimate question with his future is a very simple one: what is his upside?
Smith has been a consistent producer for the Gophers, yet the NFL does not have a track record of prioritizing average athletes at the position, no matter the yardage output (think about Wisconsin’s Corey Clement from the other year).
Smith can play. He’s a smooth athlete that does a lot of little things well and has been a reliable feature back at the college level. But unless he finds some extra burst, his draft stock won’t have much of a pulse.
Needs to improve: Explosiveness
Sleeper to watch: Miles Sanders, Penn State