Running on Empty

By Kyle Rowland on September 13, 2012 at 10:00a


That’s how many career rushing yards Ohio State will have at running back on Saturday versus California. It sounds like a good figure. One thousand is one of those numbers that causes heads to turn when football is the topic of conversation.  

Drayton has remained confident in his running backs.

But in this instance, it’s not all that impressive. The yardage is split among four different players, and they have a grand total of eight touchdowns between them.

Jordan Hall has 814 yards and five touchdowns, while Rod Smith (142 yards), Bri’onte Dunn (60) and Zach Boren (28) have each crossed the goal line once.

Compare those numbers to sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller: 1,017 yards and 11 touchdowns. Now you see why head coach Urban Meyer and running backs coach Stan Drayton are worried about the early-season hits Miller has taken – because they could continue well into the conference schedule.

Hall’s misfortunes have been well documented, leaving him on the sideline the first two weeks. Then disaster struck Ohio State in its 31-16 win over Central Florida, when backup-turned-starter Carlos Hyde suffered a sprained MCL.

It has thrust Dunn into the starting spot on the depth chart with Smith as the backup. On Wednesday, however, Meyer said he would not name a starter until Saturday. He also indicated Hall will make his return this week, though he doesn’t know how many plays he’ll be in for.

“He’s going to be rusty,” Drayton said on Monday. “It’s an offense based on timing. He has to get in with the quarterbacks and get extra work.”

The running backs performed well in the opener, gaining 139 yards on 29 carries and scoring four touchdowns. All of those numbers took significant dives against UCF.

Twenty-two carries, 82 yards, zero touchdowns.

“Based on performance, last week was not very good,” Drayton said. “However, we wipe the slate clean every week. They have to have an unbelievable week at practice this week to earn their time on the field.”

Miller and wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown combined for 174 rushing yards and three touchdowns last week. In the first two games, Miller alone has more rushing yards than the combination of tailbacks. His 302 yards rank first in the Big Ten and fourth nationally. At this pace, he’ll accumulate far more than that magic 1,000-yard threshold, becoming Meyer’s first millennium-mark runner.

The anticipated debut of Hall has arrived.

“We have got to be smart,” Meyer said. “He got tattooed a little bit (versus UCF). But we've all got to take care of him.”

Said Boren: “With (Hall) coming back, hopefully that will help, and (Brown) getting a bigger role. You definitely don’t want (Miller) carrying the ball that many times, but we’ll see. He’s our go-to guy. So hopefully we can distribute the ball and get some points this week.”

The most recent injury to Hyde may leave Ohio State more vulnerable, even with Hall’s return, because the team is potentially without a true No. 1 running back.

Hall could still feel the effects of his foot tendon injury, Dunn and Smith have limited experience and Boren has never been a feature back. That’s why Drayton likes to have so much depth.

In the rugged world of the Big Ten, injuries are inevitable. But late-October and November are usually when the aches and pains become an issue. The timetable has been moved up dramatically for the Buckeyes.

“My mindset every week is I need to have three (running backs) prepared," Drayton said. “Three need to be able to play this game, especially when you're talking a no-huddle offense, high-power, the whole deal.”

The level at which Hall returns is of particular intrigue to Drayton. If Hall can take a burden off the young tailbacks and help alleviate the pain felt from his and Hyde’s absence, it could go a long way in the offense becoming more balanced.

Following practice on Wednesday, Meyer indicated that Hall looked good and had a solid grasp of the playbook. Meyer also brushed aside any concerns about Hall being properly conditioned, an issue Drayton talked about earlier in the week.

“He's making cuts like he always does,” wide receiver Devin Smith said of Hall. “He said his foot feels normal, so I hope that's good news.”

The other thee options are talented and have promise, but they are also flawed up to this point. Dunn is a true freshman who will be playing in just his third game, Smith’s production has been inconsistent in the limited amount of carries he’s had in two seasons while fumbles have plagued him and Boren had one career carry entering the season.

“He’s Tarzan, no question about it,” Drayton said of Smith. “He looks the part. But you don’t put a player out there based upon how he looks. It’s all performance-based.”

The trio has also never prepared to start as feature backs. Meyer touched on that factor Monday. The mindset of approaching a game as a starter doesn’t compare to knowing you’re the backup or third-stringer who will take minimal carries.

“That is certainly a topic of conversation that will impact how we game plan,” Meyer said. “Those kids are talented, so it's not like we have a bad player back there. I have got to look in those guys' eyes. The psychological approach to coaching now is with those two young players. Who can handle it?”

At this point, Dunn is the presumptive starter. 

Miller said Dunn, the presumptive starter, has performed well in practice but also said he’s shown some nervousness this week, which is to be expected. But Dunn is taking his role seriously.

“He’s doing the same thing he does each and every week,” Boren said. “He’s in the film room all the time, and he’ll be competing on Saturday.”

The onus is on them to prove in practice they can handle the workload and pressure of being a primary back. With that comes dependence in short-yardage situations and to get the ball out of Miller’s hands. That responsibility is now magnified in light of how often he’s been carrying the ball.

“One of those guys has got to pick their game up,” Drayton said. “They have to. We can't go into this ballgame with the thought process of not having a running back.”

The wild cards in the backfield are Boren and Brown. Through two games, even Boren doesn’t know exactly what his responsibilities are, but he said he likes the mystery entering a game and not knowing what’s in store.

“We ask him to do, from a job description stand point, probably more so than everyone else in that offense,” Drayton said. “He’s a young man that can get us four to five yards on an inside zone play and turn around and block a five technique.”

Brown, meanwhile, was a star running back in high school and would like to catch some passes behind the line of scrimmage. With the ground game grounded, so to speak, getting Brown in space could be the best course of action for the Buckeyes.

Devin Smith said on Wednesday that practices have been heavy on passing this week and that Brown has taken on an added role in the offense. 

“(Brown’s) a wide receiver,” Drayton said. “I don’t want to send the wrong message out there. He is the wide receiver, and we need him to be productive on the perimeter.”

Despite Brown’s willingness to help the rushing game, Drayton has not warmed to the idea of having him get touches over running backs. Through two games, though, Brown is the clear gamebreaker on offense, a necessity for Meyer to keep defenses honest.

“I feel as though if Zach Boren continues to progress along with Bri'onte Dunn and Rod Smith, those younger backs progress, I think we can be solid there,” Drayton said. “There’s some things that they cannot do that Philly Brown may be able to do.”

For the Buckeyes, it doesn’t matter who gets the yards – unless it’s Miller’s 16th carry – just as long as they advance the ball upfield.


Comments Show All Comments

Baroclinicity's picture

Kyle Rowland, you are an article-producing juggernaut.  Keep up the good work, my friend.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Buckeyejason's picture

Dunn is going to have a BIG GAME! Mark it down. 


cplunk's picture

I think Dunn is just a much more explosive back then the others on the roster. Jordan Hall can probably do more things overall and Hyde is more experienced and probably a better power runner (and doesn't lack speed at all), but Dunn is gonna be a super stud. You can see the potential everytime he runs.
Hopefully he's picked up enough about the offense to be able to showcase what he can do this week

Buckeyejason's picture

What does it show about Rod Smith when he's in his 3rd year in the program and getting passed up by Dunn, who just showed up in June. Also, in the cupcake games including last year..he's got what, a hand full of carries? Doesn't seem the coaching  staff is too confident in him.


Run_Fido_Run's picture

We can't be sure yet what it shows. Jonathan Wells was lightly used as a frosh (1998) and sophomore (1999), even though the '99 team sucked and had a starting RB (M. Wiley) who wasn't suited to be a 20+ carry workhorse. That year, Wells ended up getting about as many carries as Derek Combs, who also did little his first two years (1997 & 98).
In 2000, Combs and Wells combined for over 1,400 yards and then in 2001 Wells went for over 1,200 by himself in his senior year.
I'm trying to recall even better examples (not necessarily Buckeyes) of RBs who were "late bloomers," not showing a lot as 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd year players, but whom ultimately developed into studs.
We always use the Eddie George example, except Eddie entered the 1994 season (his 3rd year) as the clear-cut "feature back." Still, Eddie had a so-so opener against Fresno. The following week, Eddie had an even rougher day as host Washington beat the Buckeyes 25-16 and Eddie had to watch N. Kaufman rush for like 210 yards
I'm still waiting to see what happens with Rod Smith.

hodge's picture

Agreed.  Kid's got all the physical tools in the world to be successful, he's just got to put it all together.  I could see him being the next "Kenny Guiton", i.e. a reclaimation project for a down-on-his-luck guy buried at the bottom of the depth chart.

Buckeyejason's picture

The fact that you had to go back 13 years to get an example isn't good for Rod lol. Seriously though I'm not saying the kids garbage and has no potential or anything, I just think he isn't as good as people think and I have a feeling the coaching staff feels the same way..considering the handful of carries he's received in 15 career games. He has great size and speed, but kinda looks like a reciever trying to play RB. You could tell just by the first 2 games that Dunn "has it" when he carries the ball..runs hard; good vision, size, speed out of the gate etc. Dunn looks way ahead of his years.


hodge's picture

Agree on Dunn's ability.  I don't think he's as polished as Hyde is, but I think that Dunn already has better vision than Hyde does.  Truth is, vision is the best asset any RB can have, it's why Boom Herron was so beloved: he wasn't all that well built (at least not in terms of physique, per se), but he made up for that by constantly hitting the holes and not his blockers.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Going back 13 years to look for "comparables" is not long at all if we're discussing whether to figuratively close the book on Rod two games into his sophomore season.
The list of 2nd, 3rd, 4th string RBs in serious competition to get carries in the last 15+ years isn't that long.
The relevant examples shrink if we factor years when "early bloomer" studs hogged carries after becoming "the guy" or at least major contributors early in their careers - Mo Clarett, Pittman, B. Wells. Meanwhile, there were other years when no RBs on the roster seemed to be that effective - L Ross, M Hall. Heck, maybe Smith would have started on the 2003 - 04 teams.      
Now, if you simply said that Dunn is going to be a stud and is likely to have a better career than Smith, I'm inclined to agree.
But Dunn's potential is not necessarily a knock against Smith. Hypothetically (using a time machine), a healthy frosh Dunn probably would see few carries if he were competing against a healthy frosh Mo Clarett, but that wouldn't be a knock on Dunn, right?
I guess if you rephrase your points in the form of probabilities, we'd be on the same page . . .
Yet I am still intrigued by the potential of Rod Smith and hold out hope that both Dunn and Smith will both turn into bad mofos.   

chitown buckeye's picture

Every year that goes by you havent produced (Smith) Is just one more recruiting class with a chance to find an explosive young talent. I believe Dunn is going to be a wonderful back and chances are in the next two classes Meyer and company are going to get a committment from another young explosive frosh. Point being if Smith doesnt pick it up soon he is going to be on the outside looking in. The days of playing a senior becacuse he is a senior are over.

"I'm having a heart attack!"

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Oh, I agree. Conversely, though, if Smith - out of the blue - turned into a monster in the summer between his junior and senior years, Urbz also wouldn't play a less-talented (at that point of his development) frosh just because he is a frosh who was supposed to "the guy" at some point. The best guys will play, period.

BuckinBama's picture

This is the make, or break game for R.Smith. I say if he doesn't show anything Saturday, he is pretty much done. I really hope he pulls it together though.

whobdis's picture

Just to chime in..yes..this may be Smith's biggest game to date in his young career. Hall may still be rusty and Hyde is out. If he get's few carries or doesn't produce when he get's the chance I think we'll see little of him when Hyde returns and Hall is up to speed. Next year will bring in Elliot and Ball will be back (personally..I REALLY like Ball) and he may drop deeper (assuming he sticks at that point).

jthiel09's picture

Another great article on a great website for all things Buckeye Football, bravo.


hodge's picture

Jackson Browne approves of your headline.

johnny11's picture

Yah Rod could be a late bloomer, but he does have to show some production. I'm one of his biggest fans as i saw him play in high school and watched him dominate like he did. The problem is that we need production and Meyer won't accept anything less. Its been said he looks like tarzan, unfortunately that doesnt equate to on field production. I'm fine with Dunn though he is going to be a good one. Maybe not the best top end speed, but he hits the hole hard and has good vision. I just think he needs to pick up the other nuances of the game such as pass blocking, routes, etc. Either way we are lucky as a team to have a backfield full of such talent that we can go this deep if injuries happen like this. People beg for this kind of depth.

BoFuquel's picture

Just win, that's all that matters. Most importantly win this game, then worry about who's left standing.You can't win'em all, if you don't win this'n.GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

BuckinBama's picture

Hasn't it been said that R.Smith has made the "Freak Show" team, aka the Punt Block team? Could that be a sign the light is possibly starting to "come on" for R.Smith. Its been said that U.Meyer calls those guys "his guys" so you have to be seen in high regard to be on that unit. I really don't care who totes the rock, just don't want it being B.Miller 27 times, I don't even want him running the ball 15 times, I much rather it be about 8-10.

Crimson's picture

A lot of the calls are options (granted not all of the 27), and so far teams mostly have been choosing to have Braxton run by having the DE take the inside route.  I don't know what they are thinking, but I'd much rather have anyone but Braxton have the ball in his hands.  Then again, I'm sure Michigan pays them to make Braxton run :)