The theme of today’s Sleeper Sunday is Big-10 football. This morning, Carl introduced readers to Wisconsin strong safety Michael Caputo. He’s a physical member of the Badgers secondary with a style of play and frame similar to that of Harrison Smith. Now, a look at one of the conference’s best-kept secrets; Indiana running back Jordan Howard.

Jordan Howard — RB, Indiana

Measurements

Height – 6’1″
Weight – 230 lbs.
Age – 21

At First Glance

As a first-year player at Indiana, the junior rushed for 1,213 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Howard was named to the First Team All-Big Ten after the season and was a member of the Doak Walker Award and Maxwell Award Watch Lists. He caught 11 passes for 106 yards for a touchdown and also finished second in the conference with 134.8 rushing yards per game.

Before the 2015 season, Howard had spent two seasons a the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). A two-star recruit in 2013, the Alabama native opted to stay in-state for his collegiate career. There, he rushed for nearly 2,500 yards and scored 15 touchdowns on the ground. In November 2014, UAB disbanded it’s football program and left Howard without a home. Fortunately, other Division 1 schools had kept an eye on the productive running back. With his pick of more than 20 programs, Howard made the decision to replace Tevin Coleman in Indiana. That choice appears to have been the right one.

“I think a lot of us, me and my former teammates we realize it was kind of like a blessing in disguise,” Howard said in October. “It gave us an opportunity to be more in the spotlight and show we can play on any type of level.”

Pros

Howard celebrated his 21st birthday in November — his relative youth means he still has time to develop into his 6’1″ frame.

A physical, 230-pound back who runs behind his pads and averaged 6.2 yards per carry in 2015.

Deceptively shifty in the trenches with an ability to break most arm tackles.

A capable receiver out of the backfield who made the most of limited opportunities.

Cons

Durability is a major question mark; missed four-plus games with knee and ankle injuries in 2015.

Limited experience against top-tier competition; played just one year at Indiana.

A slow-developing back who takes too much time to “hit the hole.”

NFL Player Comparison

Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

Like Hill, Howard is a bigger back who enters the league with NFL size. Although Hill was a more decisive player coming out of college, both showed decent hands in limited exposure and an ability to break arm tackles in the trenches. Unlike Hill, Howard doesn’t carry any character concerns; Hill pleaded guilty on battery charges for an April, 2013 incident, per CBS Sports. Another comparison is LaGarrette Blount, whose game has been defined by punishing, downhill running. Howard is similar in that he’s not the fastest straight-line running back, but is shifty in tight spaces and agile breaking in and out of cuts.

The Vikings Slant

Howards’ projected role with the Minnesota Vikings is dependent on Rick Spielman’s actions this offseason. If Adrian Peterson is traded in the next few months, the Vikings will have a major hole to fill behind Teddy Bridgewater. If he’s not, fans can expect to see No. 28 taking handoffs in 2016 and beyond.

But in a world where Peterson is no longer a Viking, Howard is a fit as the first “punch” of a McKinnon-Howard duo. Currently, Matt Asiata has a hold on that niche, but he’ll be 29 years-old next season and may not make sense in the Vikings’ future plans. Howard provides the potential of becoming a David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell-type back — a taller, more physical player who can catch, run, and protect the passer.

If he doesn’t “wow” at the upcoming NFL Combine, Howard will project as a back similar to Jeremy Hill or Carlos Hyde. That’s not necessarily a problem, as the duo of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill have been relatively successful for the Cincinnati Bengals. McKinnon and Howard project favorably to the pair of Bengals running backs, and could open Norv Turner’s playbook in 2016.