When Urban Meyer was hired, this situation was unthinkable. Ohio State couldn’t possibly be a power run team. And it certainly wouldn’t have a 1,500-yard rusher.
Carlos Hyde gave fans visions of Eddie George, as he rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season, becoming the first Meyer-coached running back to surpass the 1,000-yard barrier. But all that production is gone. So, whom do the Buckeyes turn to?
There are many options, and they’ll need all hands – or legs – on deck. Running backs coach Stan Drayton doesn’t mince words, and he isn’t particular about who gets yards or carries. He just doesn’t want a severe drop off from Hyde’s historic 2013 season.
“[He] has to be replaced. This is The Ohio State University, and it’s the next man up,” Drayton exclaimed. “I’m sure if you asked Carlos Hyde, he’d tell you the same thing. It’s the next man up. Somebody has to step up and fill the shoes of Carlos Hyde. If it takes more than one guy to do that, I promise you it’s going to get done.”
The candidates are Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn, Warren Ball and Curtis Samuel. Platoon running back systems aren’t the wave of the future; they’re already dominating present-day NFL rosters. The void Hyde leaves could set in motion a similar depth chart for Ohio State. Hyde’s attributes were perfectly suited for the Buckeye offense. But as Urban Meyer and Tom Herman explained earlier in the week, ideas evolve each year.
“We know we’ve got big shoes to fill,” Smith said. “You come out here, you watch us play, you can see our backfield as a whole, what it’s going to be this season. We’re going to make a lot noise. You’re going to hear us. We’re not going to be unheard.”
For 2014, there is no ideal body type or running style, only yardage producers. When Ohio State required a handful of yards, Hyde possessed the ability to remove all doubt – he was going to pick up a first down. That same efficiency and worry-free attitude might disappear from the Buckeyes’ high-octane offense.
“I’m always going to operate under the notion that I need at least three. And there’s five of them,” Drayton said. “All those guys are in the mix. They’re so competitive. They all bring something different to the table, they all have a different style and different strengths and weaknesses. They can all help this football team.
“I just prefer a guy who is going to be productive, period.”
Even at this time a year ago, Hyde’s full value hadn’t yet bloomed. There were brief glimpses in 2011 and 2012 spawned 970 yards in an incomplete season. Still, few envisioned the breakout that would ensue. Hyde went from dark horse Heisman contender to a possible first-round draft pick.
“We know we’ve got big shoes to fill. We’re going to make a lot noise. You’re going to hear us. We’re not going to be unheard.”– Rod Smith
How involved was he in last year’s offensive game plan? Enough to have more carries than the rest of Ohio State’s tailbacks combined. Hyde also had more yards last season than Elliott, Smith, Dunn and Ball have totaled in their careers.
“They have a culture that’s being created in that room right now that they’re trying to be the hardest working unit on the football field, and I really see them trying to do that,” Drayton said. “If they keep that mindset and keep that unselfishness in their back pocket somewhere, we’re definitely going to exceed our goals. I really believe that.”
One of those goals is to take mileage off Braxton Miller. The senior-to-be was leaned on less for his running last season thanks to Hyde’s dependability. Jordan Hall, a forgotten man, also gave Miller a reprieve. But those losses combined with a retooled offensive line could put more stress on the signal caller.
The pecking order to replace Hyde is Elliott, Smith, Dunn, Ball and Samuel. Elliott, who’s added 25 pounds of muscle, put in an impressive 11-game performance that included nearly nine yards per carry. He finished with 262 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Elliott’s similar to Hyde in that he’s big-bodied and fast. There was pause Tuesday, though, when Herman lamented his “still playing like a freshman.”
Smith and Dunn each came to Ohio State believing they would one day be the starter. Those thoughts could still come to fruition. But they’ve experienced shortcomings that stunted their talent growth. Ball’s still developing, while Samuel, a true freshman with blazing speed, could be featured in a hybrid role.
All five look to their predecessor for inspiration and advice. Hyde may have had his demons at Ohio State, but he left a legacy of excellence on the turf in Ohio Stadium.
“Carlos was like a big brother to me. He taught me a lot, he taught everybody a lot,” Dunn said. “His example last year, it just taught us all a lot.”
Said Drayton: “It’s really incredible. [Hyde’s] been the best example for us off the field – how he grew into manhood, how he became unselfish. His business on the football field became more about his teammates. Those are the things that we harp on person-to-person in the meeting room. We share it with the entire team. That was a transformation of a boy going to manhood – a guy who made some mistakes, confessed his mistakes and went on do some great things.”
Taking on that kind of mentor role this year is Smith, the lone senior in the group. It’s been an up-and-down journey to his fourth season. There have been fumbles, long runs, touchdowns and a suspension. Yet, it hasn’t deteriorated his leadership.
“I’m trying to pass on what I know, so they won’t make the same mistakes I made,” said a humbled Smith. “It was just growing up. I’m 22 now. All of that stuff, I was young and immature. I’ve grown up a lot. We’ve talked about it as a team. The team sees me growing and my running back group sees me growing. I’ve helped them out. All I can do is help them to not make the mistakes and just keep getting better.”
For now, the quintet is studying the playbook, reviewing film and helping one another through the process. While playing time’s at stake, the objective is to place the best running back – or backs – on the field.
Their message to anxious onlookers is simple.
“Don’t worry,” Elliott said, “we have a stable full of backs that are very capable.”