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2017 Purdue Football Season Preview: Running Backs

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It is an embarrassment of riches at one position, at least.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

First, the good news: Purdue seems to have five running backs capable of starting.

Now, the bad news: there is no clear-cut leader among those five, so the starter is up in the air.

The deepest position on the team is probably running back, but that is both a blessing and a curse. Thanks to the expected summer attrition there is not a senior RB on the roster. That means this year’s depth will carry over to next season, and Purdue already has two more committed running backs in Clay Harris and Destin Coates. Unfortunately, you cannot play five guys at once. Even with a liberal rotation it is likely that one or two guys are not going to get a ton of carries.

But the depth is a good thing in the end. It covers for injuries, and the running back spot is one where injuries can pile up in a hurry. Thanks to special teams all five guys will probably see the field anyway.

Since a starter has not been named I am going to rank the guys here by who I would choose as the starter on down. I expect all of the top five to play in some capacity.

Markell Jones – Jr.

1,491 yards, 14 TDs

66 receptions, 454 yards, 1 TD

A year ago it looked like Jones would leave Purdue as one of our all-time greats. He rushed for 875 yards and 10 TDs as a freshman in 2015 and looked poised for a near-certain 1,000 yard season. The all-time rushing record (3,635 yards by Mike Alstott) was in range, as well as the single-season record. Anything seemed possible after he put up high school numbers at Columbus East that would break a PlayStation.

Then last year happened. It was a disappointing one where Markell injured his shoulder in game 2 against Cincinnati and was never really himself afterward. He missed the Illinois game and finished with only 616 yards and 4 TDs after having 316 yards and 2 TDs in the first three games. The transition to the new coaching staff was a rough one, and he was bumped well down the depth chart in spring football due to questions about his commitment.

When Markell is on he is the best running back we have. Of everyone in the backfield I think he is the most capable of a 1,000 yard, 10 TD season or more. Such a year would move him to 7th all-time in school history in rushing yards, but he has to want it.

D.J. Knox – Jr.

409 yards, 2 TDs

26 receptions, 189 yards

How Darrell Hazell handled DJ Knox astounds me. He played as a special teamer in 2014 as a true freshman, but did not get a single carry. In 2015 he was named the starting running back, but Jones was better and easily outdistanced him. After a 102 yard 1 TD game at Marshall John Shoop realized he was a good player, so he marginalized him offensively because he is a super genius (he did the same with Anthony Mahoungou after that game). Knox ran for 193 yards in his first two games and 206 in the final 10 games. He then tore his ACL in the 2016 spring game, but he still had his redshirt year available.

Knox is the small bowling ball of a back. He was a First Team all-state selection in Georgia with 1,479 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior, but was lightly recruited. He has never really been given a fair shot at Purdue, but still has a lot of promise. That his injury occurred in the spring of 2016 helps too, because he can be even stronger when the season starts. He will get carries and work as a kick returner.

Richie Worship – So.

133 yards, 2 TDs

8 receptions, 49 yards

If Markell Jones is the best overall back and Knox is the little bowling ball, Worship is the bulldozer. He is huge for a running back at 6’1” and 242 pounds, so he will be used some in a fullback role too. Last season his best game was at Illinois where he had 60 yards and a touchdown, but he didn’t play in the final four games. His size also makes him Purdue’s best blocking back, but he is a perfectly capable back with the ball in his hands too.

Worship, too, will play. That is where the fullback role comes in. Think of him as a short-yardage back and a bit of a punisher that gets a few carries per game.

Brian Lankford-Johnson – So.

332 yards, 2 TDs

11 receptions, 90 yards

516 kickoff return yards

In terms of raw speed Lankford-Johnson is Purdue’s fastest back. He showed that when the first carry of his career was a 48 yard touchdown against Eastern Kentucky last season. He was given a chance to start at Illinois with Jones out and rushed for 127 yards and a score before leaving with an injury. That speed was also put to use on kickoff returns, where he had 516 yards with a long of 55, both team highs.

The biggest knock against BLJ is his blocking. He is a home run hitter though. Jones has breakaway speed too, but BLJ is even faster.

Tario Fuller – So.

30 rushing yards

5 receptions, 51 yards

Fuller is the least heralded of the backs, but he was the surprise No.1 in the spring and as of right now is still holding on to the job. There is not a lot that stands out about him except his consistency. He does all the right things and that is good enough to get on the field right now. He had a 27 yard reception that set up the first touchdown of last season, but didn’t get a lot of chances to do much after that.

Where Fuller might have a role is in his versatility. He can shift out to a receiver if requested and he does have good hands. While he doesn’t have breakaway speed, he can be elusive (if that makes sense). He doesn’t have the tools or skills that the four above him have, but he is still No. 1 on the chart right now based on his attitude and intangibles. That’s worth something.

Jack Wegher – So.

-5 rushing yards

2 receptions, 37 yards

19 kickoff return yards

There is a pretty big gap between the top five and Wegher right now, but Wegher deserves a mention because he did play last year. In fact, he was forced to play in a key spot due to injuries at Minnesota and was stuffed on 4th and 1 with Purdue trailing 37-31, where he also fumbled. What do you expect when you’re down to a 6th string freshman running back though.

Wegher did play more on kickoffs and had both of his receptions against Northwestern. Purdue can bring him along slower and he does still have a redshirt year available.

Walk-ons

Carter McGinnis – Fr.

Alexander Horvath – Fr.

Lane Beeler – Jr.

Of these guys maybe Beeler plays a little. He is in year 4 as a walk-on and if Purdue is ever up (or down) big in a game his hard work on the scout team might earn a carry or two.

Overall Position Grade: A

There is a lot to like here. Purdue has several good options and each brings something different to the table. Jones is the best all-around back. Worship is the bruiser. Lankford-Johnson is the speed guy. Knox is the bruising little bowling ball. Fuller is the technically sound guy. All five will play and it seems like BLJ and Knox will also be used on kickoffs.

If you listed Purdue’s top 25 overall players there is a good chance all five of the top guys here would be named. Where Brohm will earn his $3 million+ is if he figures out the best way to get all five involved.