Wisconsin running back Montee Ball is not going to catch former Badger Ron Dayne, the all-time FBS rushing leader with 6,397 yards. Ball is, however, the active leader in career rushing yards with 3,310. Of course, unlike when Dayne played (1996-99) for the Badgers, top-flight running backs spending four years on campus are now rare. Headline-grabbing RBs – and many who think they are headliners – are moving on after two or three years. That’s what makes Ball’s run in Madison somewhat refreshing: he will be a four-year player for a big time program.
The 2012 season will be interesting at least early on in that Ball, a Heisman finalist last year, and the Badgers will no longer have the services of QB Russell Wilson and standout receiver Nick Toon. More critical, three horses on the line need to be replaced. While Ball may not come close to duplicating his otherworldly 2011 when he ran for 1,923 yards and 33 TDs (39 total), he will most certainly be counted on to carry the offense.
With Ball leading the way, here are the top 10 active running backs in career rushing yards with their 2012 class.
3,310 -- Montee Ball, Wisconsin, SR
3,229 – Denard Robinson, Michigan. SR
Thanks to the emergence of Fitzgerald Toussaint at running back, the Wolverines’ offense became less dependent on Robinson’s feet as the 2011 season unfolded. That trend should continue in 2012, which would be better overall for the Maize and Blue during a season that could result in a Big Ten title and perhaps much more. Among Big 10 quarterbacks, former Indiana star Antwaan Randle-El is the conference’s all-time rushing leader with 3,895 yards.
3,157 – Robbie Rouse, Fresno State, SR
While fans outside the Valley may not have much knowledge of Rouse, he could enter the national conscience on Sept. 8 when the Bulldogs travel to Oregon. Rouse reached the century mark eight times in 12 games last season, including topping 150 yards on four occasions en route to compiling a 1,549-yard campaign.
2,907 – Zach Line, SMU, SR
Among running backs returning for 2012, Line’s 122.4 yards rushing per game last season were second to Ball’s 137.3. Line missed the final three games of 2012 with a toe injury, so he will be under the microscope in preseason drills. Even with former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert on board, the Mustangs’ fortunes likely rest with a healthy Line.
2,770 – Stepfan Taylor, Stanford, SR
Led by Andrew Luck, the Cardinal lost a lot of firepower. Taylor, however, provides some continuity on offense and will be counted on to help ease the transition at quarterback whether it Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes. Taylor finished last season with 118 yards against Notre Dame and 177 in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. After rushing for 1,330 yards in 2011, Taylor needs 1,264 to pass Darrin Nelson and become Stanford’s all-time leading rusher.
2,669 – Johnathan Franklin, UCLA, SR
It is easy to wonder what kind of career Franklin would have if he had more work. He basically split carries with Derrick Coleman last season and has often lined up behind a running quarterback in Kevin Prince. As a result, Franklin has gone 17 straight games with fewer than 20 carries. He averaged an eye-opening 5.9 per tote last season.
2,654 – Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, SR
The battering ram provided few leftovers as he carried the ball 284 times last season, including a career-high 38 against Iowa (170 yards) to close the Big Ten schedule. He also topped the century mark against Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State. Another 90 yards and Burkhead will crack Nebraska’s top 10.
2,442 – Ed Wesley, TCU, SR
Since Gary Patterson took over the Horned Frogs starting with the 1998 season, only three times has a running back had 200 carries. LaDainian Tomlinson did it twice. Patterson has mostly employed multiple and multi-dimensional backs and Wesley has only seven games of more than 15 carries in his three seasons. Good things usually happen he does tote the pigskin as his career average of 6.3 yards per carry would attest.
2,355 – Andre Ellington, Clemson, SR
Ellington broke through as the Tigers’ primary running back last season rushing for nearly 1,200 yards despite missing one game and being limited in two others. A big-play back, there were six games last season in which he ripped off runs of at least 25 yards, including three games he galloped for more than 50.
2,335 – Michael Dyer, Arkansas State, JR
The explosive back became the first player in Auburn history to rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman and sophomore. As such, it appeared as though Dyer would be on his way to a memorable career on the Plains. Well, Dyer ended last season being suspended for the Tigers’ bowl game then followed offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to Jonesboro where the latter was named head coach.