1. Venrick Mark, Northwestern
The forgotten man in the Big Ten backfield last season, Mark finished with 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns. Overshadowed by Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, the Northwestern running back had six games of 100 or more yards against conference opponents, including a 182-yard outing at Minnesota. With the likes of Ball and Bell off to the NFL, Mark becomes the face of the Big Ten's ground game following his breakout junior year. For the first time in his career, he'll have to deal with high expectations being placed on his shoulders. For some players, lofty outlooks can be too much to handle, but after seeing what Mark did in his first opportunity, there's plenty to be excited about regarding the senior tailback. Give him the ball 220+ times in 2013 (had 226 attempts last season) and watch what he can do.
Like Mark, Abdullah had his first real chance to show the nation what he could do in 2012 after senior Rex Burkhead went down with an injury. In 226 attempts (coincidentally, the same number of carries as Mark), Abdullah compiled 1,137 yards and 10 total scores (two receiving). Being Nebraska's prominent halfback now, the 5'9" tailback won't be able to capitalize on the surprise factor that he brought to the table in years prior. Defenses will be expecting him on every down now.
Still, though, between his unique skillset, complimented with, arguably, the conference's best dual-threat quarterback in Taylor Martinez, Abdullah should be in for a monster season. As long as he can avoid putting the ball on the turf as he has been prone to do in the past, there's no reason the Alabama native shouldn't at least duplicate his numbers from his year, if not better.
3. James White, Wisconsin
If Mark was overshadowed by Montee Ball, than White's talent was completely blanketed by Ball. Stuck behind Ball on the depth for the past couple of seasons, White still managed to be a force in the Badgers' backfield. There may not be any other player in the nation who had the most bang for his buck. In 125 attempts in 2012, White amassed 806 yards (6.4 yards per carry) with 12 touchdowns. That is quite impressive. Yet, his freshman season was even better, in which he broke 1,000 yards and scored 14 times on just 156 carries (6.7 yards per carry).
He can thank Ball for battering the opposing defense for four quarters every Saturday, but it still takes a special talent to be able to breakthrough like that in limited touches. As he enters his senior season, White will finally sit atop the depth chart and have one season to make the most out of his touches. Will he continue to average around 6.5 yards per touch? Probably not. But from what he's shown in the past, he can make the most out of nothing, so giving him 20-30 carries a game will translate into even more big plays than he's accustomed to.
Looking past his three game suspension, Hyde is a terrific talent in Urban Meyer's offense. Playing second fiddle to Braxton Miller, Hyde rushed for 970 yards and 16 scores, which was the second highest total in the Big Ten behind Montee Ball. The bruising halfback is the perfect complement to an Ohio State offense that likes to get after opposing defenses through the air and the ground. While Miller breaks off long runs and moves the ball downfield, Hyde often catches the defense off-guard with slams up the middle.
Last season, he developed into one of the best goal line threats in the nation, scoring numerous times from within ten yards of the endzone. Because of Miller's threat to run, the defense has to respect the read-option, leaving holes for Hyde to bust through.
My surprise pick, Houston is Indiana's most dangerous player and has proved to be a scoring machine for the Hoosiers. In 2012, the 6'0" halfback picked up 749 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Adding to his value is his ability in the passing game. He hauled in 37 receptions for 381 yards and four scores as a junior.
The only knock against Houston is his workload. He had a career-high 161 carries last season, which is well short of what a typical Big Ten feature back receives (Le'Veon Bell had 382 attempts).Still, though, Houston's nose for the endzone and pass catching prowess leave him as one of the top five at his position in 2013. Out of all the Big Ten runners (including those not in the top 5), he has the potential to be make the biggest rise, just as Mark did last season. Just Missed the Cut: Zach Zwinak (Penn State), Fitz Toussaint (Michigan)
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