With a few exceptions, Ohio State's backfield has had at least one stud running back roaming the backfield since at least the days of Archie Griffin's freshman season.
Their names are revered by Buckeye fans far and wide—Eddie George, Raymont Harris, Maurice Clarett, Robert Smith, Chris "Beanie" Wells, Carlos Hyde, and so on. The Buckeyes generally haven't wanted for talented players lining up behind the quarterback.
The 2014 Ohio State football team is no different.
Urban Meyer and his staff inherited and recruited a number of excessively athletic men who are adept at running over and through defenders while carrying an inflated pigskin. Herein we'll discuss those freakishly gifted young men and how the Ohio State backfield stacks up for the upcoming 2014 season.
The Running Backs in 2013
The Buckeyes lost more than 2,000 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns to graduation in the persons of Hyde and Jordan Hall. El Guapo was a barroom incident away from possibly winning the Heisman Trophy last year, racking up 1,521 yards on 208 attempts (7.3 YPA) and 15 scores. Hall completed his injury-riddled career with 536 yards on 81 carries (6.6 YPA) with eight touchdowns.
As a group, Buckeye running backs (minus Dontre Wilson’s hybrid role) gained 2,526 of Ohio State’s total 4,321 yards and 26 of the 45 rushing touchdowns. If you add Wilson, that total jumps to 2,776 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Of the returning players, Ezekiel Elliott led the way as a freshman, gaining 262 yards on just 30 carries (8.7 YPA) with two touchdowns. However, the bulk of those numbers came against overmatched Florida A&M. Rod Smith rushed for 117 yards on 22 attempts (5.3 YPA) with one score and Warren Ball added 76 yards on 13 rushes (5.8 YPA).
When you add Wilson’s carries from the H position, an occasional carry by Philly Brown, and the insane rushing production of quarterbacks Braxton Miller, Kenny Guiton and Cardale Jones, Ohio State’s running game was, quite simply, filthy in 2014.
At this point, it appears the race for the starting tailback spot is between Elliott, who is recovering from wrist surgery to have a pin inserted, and Smith. Meyer recently listed the pecking order as Elliott, Smith, true freshman Curtis Samuel, and redshirt sophomore Bri’onte Dunn. Ball has been battling injuries throughout camp, causing him to lose ground in the race.
|28||RB||WARREN BALL||6-1||224||SO||Columbus, OH|
|26||RB||DEVONTE BUTLER||5-7||170||SO||Columbus, OH|
|25||RB||DUNN, BRI'ONTE||6-0||216||SO||Canton, OH|
|15||RB||ELLIOTT, EZEKIEL||6-0||225||SO||St. Louis, MO|
|35||RB||JOHNSON, JEFFIE||5-10||197||JR||Hilliard, OH|
|29||RB||LAPS, CALEB||6-1||210||SO||Canton, OH|
|17||H-B||MARSHALL, JALIN||5-11||205||FR||Middletown, OH|
|4||RB||SAMUEL, CURTIS||5-11||190||FR||Brooklyn, NY|
|7||RB||SMITH, ROD||6-3||231||SR||Fort Wayne, IN|
|2||H-B||WILSON, DONTRE||5-10||185||SO||DeSoto, TX|
Smith was almost a forgotten man during spring ball, when he worked on academics while his teammates practiced. But it’s not surprising to see the senior in the mix. In addition to having outstanding size (6-3, 230) and being the most experienced back in the OSU huddle, Smith has tremendous upside. He ran for a Summitt Athletic Conference career record of 6,625 yards with 66 touchdowns in high school. If Elliott’s wrist holds him back, Smith looks like your opening day starter against Navy.
However, Elliott says he’ll be ready to go for Navy, although he’ll have to carry the ball in his right hand until the cast comes off. I have reservations about ball security if Elliott plays with a wounded wing, but if Meyer feels he’s not a liability, Elliott is your likely starter to open the season. If not, Smith can stake his claim for the position while Elliott recuperates.
Wilson has the starting H spot locked down and redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall is chasing.
Smith is your likely number two guy if Elliott is good to go. After that, things get interesting. Exciting newcomer Curtis Samuel has been turning heads since spring with his speed and athleticism. Samuel will be an X-factor for the offense because it’s probable that he’ll see the field not only as a backup tailback, but also in the hybrid role.
Dunn should return from his redshirt year a much hungrier player. He ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2012, showing flashes of becoming a dependable Buckeye runner. Ball will want to increase his carries from a year ago to continue his upward trajectory as well. Both may see the ball more than they have in the past, especially if Tom Herman uses the committee approach.
All of Ohio State’s top five running backs are capable of lighting it up. Once again, it’s an embarrassingly deep position.
Rounding out the depth chart is Devonte Butler, who gained 14 yards on four attempts last season, along with fellow walk-ons Jeffie Johnson and Caleb Laps.
Despite losing Hyde and Hall, Ohio State should not suffer much of a setback in the running backs room. Smith is a senior and Ball and Dunn have been with the program for three seasons, so experience isn’t an issue. Elliott was too talented to keep off the field as a freshman and he’s only gotten bigger and better since joining the program. Wilson will see a variety of different plays than last year when he was mostly a decoy used to keep defenses honest.
That said, it doesn’t mean the running game will pick up where it left off, either. The offensive line graduated four seniors and will need to find time to develop chemistry in order for the Buckeyes to run anywhere near as efficiently as they did in 2013. Braxton Miller has expressed a desire to run less and from what we’ve heard out of Tom Herman, that’s the overall plan. That would affect the running game.
Also, Hyde was a very special back. Ohio State may not have a single running back on the team as talented as El Guapo, but they make up for it by having much less drop-off between the starter and the fifth guy in the rotation than last year.
If Ed Warinner works his magic with the offensive line and the Buckeye backs stay healthy, we may get to see another outstanding year from the position that Archie Griffin made synonymous with Ohio State.
- Elliott’s coach at John Burroughs High School in St. Louis was former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, and he was named St. Louis Post-Dispatch offensive player of the year as a senior in 2012.
- Ball was the second commitment to the 2012 class.
- Smith’s younger brother Jaylon is a sophomore linebacker for Notre Dame.
- Samuel was the state runner-up in the 55-meter dash in the spring of 2013.