By Eric Olson, Associated Press
After passing on opportunities to declare for the NFL draft, running backs Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin are the country’s top two returning rushers.
Both are using this spring as a start for polishing their games and enhancing their draft stocks for 2015.
Nebraska and Wisconsin, which will compete in the Big Ten’s new West Division, are mighty happy to have their stars back.
Abdullah went over 1,000 yards for the second straight year, and his 1,690 yards was the fourth-best total in program history.
He said his priorities are to hang onto the ball better and improve in pass protection. He said defensive end Randy Gregory and linebacker Zaire Anderson have made him better in that area this spring.
“I ask them to give me their worst every day _ don’t hold back, don’t `brother-in-law’ me, don’t treat me good just because I’m on your team,” Abdullah said. “If I can block those guys, I plan to be pretty good in the season.”
Asked how important Gordon’s presence will be this fall, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said, “Huge is probably not a big enough word.”
Gordon averaged 123.8 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season. He said he felt in his heart that staying at Wisconsin another year would be best for him.
“I want to be a complete back, and I feel there are some things I still needed to work on,” he said.
A look around the Big Ten West:
ILLINOIS: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he’s in no rush to decide on a quarterback to replace four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase. The candidates are Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt, Aaron Bailey and Reilly O’Toole. Cubit said there’s separation in the competition, but he wouldn’t say who is ahead. “You see it, but it’s not that big a deal right now because you’ve got to be fair,” he said.
IOWA: The Hawkeyes have to replace three linebackers who combined to start 104 games and make 985 tackles. The front-runners are Travis Perry, Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman, all of whom saw action in every game last year. QB Jake Ruddock is “perfectly healthy” after having knee problems and being generally banged up at the end of last season, coach Kirk Ferentz said.
MINNESOTA: Philip Nelson’s decision to transfer to Rutgers has made Mitch Leidner the undisputed starting QB, and coach Jerry Kill said the sophomore has taken to the job. Leidner ran for 407 yards and seven touchdowns and completed 55 percent of his passes for 619 yards and three TDs. Only one starter on the offensive line is gone, and RB David Cobb is back after becoming the first Gophers back to rush for 1,000 yards since 2006. Defense must replace start lineman Ra’Shede Johnson.
NEBRASKA: Cornerback Josh Mitchell is on the verge of a breakout season. He started six games last season and broke up six passes. He had the best game of his career in the Gator Bowl, with an interception, fumble recovery and pass break-up. “He’s very instinctive and plays the ball very well,” coach Bo Pelini said. “He’s a guy I think will have a big senior year for us. I love the way he competes, and he brings great enthusiasm to the field.”
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats have 11 players sitting out for health reasons, including running backs Venric Mark and Stephen Buckley. WR Miles Shuler has shown up well, and coach Pat Fitzgerald said he expects the Rutgers transfer to be an “impact player.” Trevor Siemian, who struggled with a bruised heel that hurt his passing, has the QB’s job all to himself with the departure of Kain Colter.
PURDUE: RB Raheem Mostert, who had just 11 carries as a junior last season, is one of the surprises of the spring. He ran nine times for 137 yards in a scrimmage last Saturday, and coach Darrell Hazell called him a “dynamic weapon” who has game-breaking speed. Austin Appleby, the No. 3 QB last season, is pushing incumbent Danny Etling.
WISCONSIN: Incumbent starting QB Joel Stave has been shut down for the last three spring practices to allow his right (throwing) shoulder to recover from a nagging bowl injury. “It’s a concern, and the minimum would be that it’s a moderate concern to me,” Andersen said. “He’s a tough young man. We’ve seen him play a lot of games. He’s a tough-minded kids. We need to get him as close to 100 percent” before the opener against LSU.