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Big Ten Preview: Ground game emphasis

John McKechnie

John is the 2016 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since early 2014.

For each conference we will list first-, second- and third-team All-Fantasy squads, as well as sleeper and bust sections. To the right of listed players you will see a parenthetical notation of their positional ranking placement.


All-Big Ten Fantasy Team

First Team

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (3)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin (10)
RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State (11)
WR: Simmie Cobbs, Indiana (13)
WR: Chris Godwin, Penn State (30)
TE: George Kittle, Iowa (8)

Second Team

QB: Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska (22)
RB: Mike Weber, Ohio State (20)
RB: Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Illinois (31)
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue (49)
WR: Janarion Grant, Rutgers (57)
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan (15)

Third Team

QB: Perry Hills, Maryland (24)
RB: Markell Jones, Purdue (45)
RB: Justin Jackson, Northwestern (56)
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska (64)
WR: Jehu Chesson, Michigan (66)
TE: Brandon Lingen, Minnesota (20)



Sleepers

Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State


The Christian Hackenberg era is over in Happy Valley and, perhaps more importantly, so is the tenure of offensive coordinator John Donovan, who both combined to lead one of the more brutal Power 5 offenses we saw over the last two years. Enter McSorley and new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who will be installing a more uptempo offense for the Nittany Lions. McSorley (6-0, 201) is a smaller but more mobile signal caller than Hackenberg, and that should lend itself to a nice fit in the new-look offense. Although McSorley will be a first year starter, he’ll have one of the best skill position groups in the Big Ten at his disposal with stud running back Saquon Barkley carrying the load out of the backfield and Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton putting fear into opposing secondaries. McSorley comported himself reasonably well in relief of the injured Hackenberg in last season’s Bowl Game, completing 14-of-27 passes for 142 yards and a pair of scores while also picking up 31 yards on the ground.


Curtis Samuel, RB, Ohio State


Maybe it’s because Samuel is too difficult to pigeonhole into just one position that led to him being omitted from the above lists, but the fact is that he’s going to have a serious role in an explosive Ohio State offense this fall. Samuel has worked at H-back, running back, and receiver during his time in Columbus, and although his overall workload took a dip last season, we should see a resurgence from him this season following the departures of Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, and Braxton Miller. In terms of per-touch production last season, Samuel was a difference maker, averaging 13.14 YPR on 22 receptions and 7.76 YPC on 17 carries. What’s more, running back Bri’onte Dunn’s dismissal from the program figures to open up some snaps out of the backfield for Samuel behind projected starter Mike Weber. There has already been chatter about Ohio State’s H-backs seeing more work in the run game this season as well. With the mass exodus of starting skill position players, Samuel is suddenly one of the more established threats in the Buckeyes offense and his sheer talent ought to shine through this season with a bigger role.


Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa


The Hawkeyes made it to the Rose Bowl last season on the strength of a stout defense alongside a smash mouth running game and a mistake-free passing attack. The philosophy figures to remain the same in 2016 despite some slight roster turnover. Top rusher Jordan Canzeri, who took 183 carries for 984 yards last season, graduated this offseason, which leaves plenty of open opportunities for lesser-known Hawkeye runners to establish themselves. Although senior LeShun Daniels figures to be the No.1 back this season, this is still a run-heavy offense and Wadley offers the most explosive skill set of anyone on that side of the ball in Iowa City. He averaged 5.98 yards per carry on 83 rushes as a sophomore last season, and while that’s a small sample, Wadley showed that what he can do when given an increased opportunity. When Canzeri was felled by an ankle injury against Northwestern, Wadley stepped in and torched the Wildcats’ stout run defense for 204 yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries. Wadley will still have Daniels as a roadblock, especially early in the season, but if Daniels struggles to find daylight or keep the chains moving, Wadley will certainly get chances to make an impact. Regardless, Iowa’s offense is one where there’s always at least two backs with over 100 carries, so even though Daniels may have the workload edge, Wadley will still be a featured part of the offense that provides big play upside unlike any other Hawkeye skill position player.


Robert Martin, RB, Rutgers


The Big Ten is relatively loaded at running back, so Martin’s omission from the All-Conference lists is not a sleight against him or his talent. Martin keyed the Scarlet Knights’ running game as a sophomore last season with 141 carries for 763 yards (5.41 YPC) and six scores despite being in an offense with three rushers with 99 or more carries. Now that Paul James is graduated and trying to latch on with an NFL team, more carries will be in store for the 6-0, 205-pound back. Now, Martin will still have Josh Hicks with him in the backfield, and he’ll push for a healthy amount of carries, but Martin should be the workhorse. Also, Rutgers will be installing a power spread system under new head coach Chris Ash and new OC Drew Mehringer that figures to create and exploit mismatches in the run game. If Martin is able to stay healthy, we give him the edge over Hicks and with that, we look for Martin to convert his increased workload into a strong 2016 campaign where he should push for 1,000 yards and 10 total touchdowns.

Noah Brown, WR, Ohio State

A broken leg ended Brown’s 2015 in August, but prior to that he was generating positive reviews for his practice performances. Urban Meyer confirmed this summer that Brown will start at receiver for the Buckeyes, and with that news it’s time to reconsider the possibility of a breakout campaign for Brown in 2016. The Buckeyes are replacing all of Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall at receiver, and at a listed height/weight of 6-foot-2, 222 pounds, Brown has both the opportunity and size to project as Ohio State’s potential WR1. If a wideout in the Big Ten is to come out of nowhere this year, Brown is as fine of a candidate as any.


Busts


Mitch Leidner, QB, Minnesota


The Leidner buzz that started to gain steam shortly after this past year’s draft may have put a bug in people’s ears that Leidner would be in line for a big season this fall for Minnesota. But, in the immortal words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!” Let’s remember that Leidner is a limited passer that’s never completed 60 percent of his passes or come close to 3,000 yards through the air. Or thrown for 15 touchdowns. In fairness, Leidner’s fantasy value is bolstered by his running ability that has resulted in 16 touchdowns on the ground over the last two seasons, but there was even a drop-off in that regard last season as Minnesota tried to get him more established as a passer by upping his volume by 170 passes (58% increase) and dropping his rushing attempts by 16 percent (19 carries). There won’t be much reason to have Leidner revert back to a more run-first quarterback this season, especially considering the Golden Gophers’ talented backfield that features Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. Just by experience alone, Leidner may be more efficient as a passer this season, but with the upside in that facet of his game likely to be limited, along with the downward trajectory of his rushing output, he will be a buyer-beware candidate in drafts this fall.


Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan


Make no mistake, Chesson (6-3, 207) and Darboh (6-2, 216) are both talented, big-bodied receivers that should be playing on Sundays this time next year. However, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be racking up gaudy fantasy numbers in their final season in Ann Arbor. Chesson (50 rec, 764 yds, 15.28 YPR, 9 TD) and Darboh (59 rec, 727 yds, 12.53 YPR, 5 TD) put up strong numbers with Jake Rudock last season, but it’s difficult to see a massive jump in production from either this season with a new quarterback under center. Yes, Rudock was a first-year starter at Michigan last season, but he was also a polished grad transfer with starting experience that took a step forward under Jim Harbaugh’s tutelage. This season, it’ll either be John O’Korn or Wilton Speight under center, and while Harbaugh will certainly help maximize their potential, it’s no sure thing that Michigan has the same results from its quarterback this season. What’s more, Michigan simply may not need to throw the ball much this season, especially in the second half of games when they figure to have built sizeable leads over inferior opponents more often than not. It’s also worth noting that Michigan averaged just 71.1 plays per game in 2015, ranking 80th in the FBS. Chesson and Darboh both have legit NFL talent, but the idea that both of them could top last year’s production in this offense with a new quarterback under center is likely a stretch.


Devine Redding, RB, Indiana


Redding is not Tevin Coleman or Jordan Howard. Redding is Redding, and while that’s not a bad thing by any means, it’s also true that he’s not deserving of being in the conversation with those aforementioned backs. When Howard was hampered by knee and ankle issues down the stretch last season, Redding flourished as the Hoosiers’ top rushing threat. He ran for 501 yards and two touchdowns on 81 carries (6.2 YPC) over the last three games of the season. As you might’ve expected, there’s a catch here. Those numbers came against Maryland, Purdue, and Duke. Only one of those teams (Duke) checked into the top 50 in terms of rushing yards per game last season. While that is a raw statistic, it goes to show that Redding wasn’t exactly tearing it up against Alabama-level front sevens. Again, Redding should have a fine season, but I have my doubts about him being able to provide value compared to where he’ll be taken in season long drafts.

Michigan State running backs The key thing to remember here is that, despite your love of 80s sitcoms, three is not company. Three is a crowd and a crowd is what we have in East Lansing. The combination of LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London make for one of the deepest running back groups in the nation, but it also paints a muddled picture. Each of those backs provide their own unique skill set and each of them showed last season that they can flourish when given the chance. But, for fantasy purposes, it’s nearly impossible to parse out who among this group will have the biggest workload. Scott would be the early favorite, but Holmes isn’t going anywhere and London is the wildcard of the group, having shown flashes of brilliance last season before seeing his workload fall off a cliff after returning from a leg injury. The workload between the three of them ended up being evenly split last season for the most part, with Scott taking 146 carries for 699 yards, Holmes getting 110 carries for 540 yards, and London seeing 119 carries for 500 yards. Scott, at 6-1, 230, is the favorite to lead the team in touchdowns thanks to his favorable build for goal line situations, but like we’ve said, this is a crowded backfield and any one of these backs can get the hot hand at any time. All three of these backs should again push for 100+ carries, but picking which back will wind up putting up the best numbers on a given week will be nearly impossible, which especially complicates ADP for season-long formats. Essentially, handicapping the Spartan backfield will end up looking like a game of whack-a-mole, with any one of those three backs popping up at any given time only to go back underground right afterwards.