The Big Ten dominated the Doak Walker Award last season, claiming all three finalists and winner Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin.
And though many of the league's top rushers moved on to the pros, there is still a massive Big Ten presence on the watch list for this season's edition of the award, including running backs from Northwestern and Illinois with local roots.
Northwestern's Justin Jackson and Illinois' Josh Ferguson were two of the eight Big Ten running backs on Thursday's 69-name watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which is handed out annually to college football's best back. Joining Jackson and Ferguson were Indiana’s Jordan Howard, Iowa’s Jordan Canzeri, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Penn State’s Akeel Lynch, Rutgers’ Paul James and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement.
Jackson, a Carol Stream native and Glenbard North product, had a breakout year as a true freshman in 2014, rushing for 1,187 yards, the seventh-best mark in a conference packed with the best rushers in the nation. Of the six ahead of Jackson last season, only one returns (Elliott), while the other five are all playing in the NFL. Jackson had six 100-plus-yard performances as a freshman, including five in Big Ten play, and was just the second first-year Wildcat to ever break the 1,000-yard-rushing mark.
Ferguson, who hails from Naperville and attended Joliet Catholic, rushed for 735 yards and racked up an additional 427 yards receiving, hitting the end zone a combined 10 times last season. In his career, he's accumulated 3,486 all-purpose yards, which are currently the 16th most in program history. Ferguson wasn't as prolific as the Illini hoped last season, going for triple-digit rushing yards just once, a huge 190-yard day against Texas State (he scored three total touchdowns in that game). But he flashed his versatility all season long as a dual threat out of the backfield and as a pass catcher.
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There are plenty of great stories in that list of additional Big Ten backs, too. Elliott is a Heisman Trophy favorite after his sensational efforts leading Ohio State to a national championship last season. Clement looks like the next in a long line of great Wisconsin backs, and he managed to be a top-10 rusher in the conference last season as a backup to Gordon. James is bouncing back from an injury that ended his 2014 season after a terrific start, and Howard, who transferred to Indiana this offseason, was the No. 14 rusher in the country last season at UAB.
The Big Ten boasted all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award last season — Gordon, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Indiana's Tevin Coleman — with Gordon's win giving the Badgers two of the last three (Montee Ball won in 2012). All told, Big Ten players have won the award seven times: Gordon (2014), Ball (2012), Iowa's Shonn Greene (2008), Michigan's Chris Perry (2003), Penn State's Larry Johnson (2002), Wisconsin's Ron Dayne (1999) and Ohio State's Eddie George (1995).