When fears about a reshaped offensive line subside, attention turns to running back. For two seasons, Carlos Hyde plowed through opponents, gaining nearly 2,500 yards along the way. Ezekiel Elliott is expected to produce in a similar manner in 2014 and beyond.
There’s more than one tailback in Ohio State’s crowded stable. California Chrome might not be occupying a barn, but the Buckeyes believe they can recreate the yards Hyde took with him to San Francisco. The forgotten man is Warren Ball. But it’s easy to overlook someone when the position is deeper than the Caspian Sea.
Elliott, Ball, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn are only the beginning. Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel are destined to get carries as well. The sheer numbers and talent level present endless competition in the backfield, which spurs growth and camaraderie. Hostility doesn’t exist in the Ohio State running backs room.
For two seasons, Ball has done little on the football field. He redshirted his true freshman season after suffering a foot injury, and Year 2 yielded 13 carries for 76 yards. Half those totals came in a scrimmage against Florida A&M. Excuse the cynics for doubting the locally grown kid.
“I definitely feel that I have a chip on my shoulder,” said Ball, a DeSales grad. “Being injured my first year, coming down here and having to redshirt, then not playing maybe as much as I wanted to but being able to learn the offense and see Carlos grow and continue to learn the offense. I have a chip on my shoulder and something to prove. I want to work to show Buckeye Nation what I can do.”
In his spring audition, Ball wasn’t Cats on Broadway, but he delivered a standing-ovation worthy performance. The spring game served as a breakout, with eight carries, 55 yards and a touchdown representing the offense’s bright spot. And that sun-splashed day in Ohio Stadium wasn’t the first positive visual. Instead, it acted as one day of many in a progression from practice player to relevance.
The past two seasons saw Hyde operate as the Buckeyes’ primary running back, but he wasn’t the lone ball carrier to receive touches. A similar script is likely for 2014, thanks to an offensive line that will assuredly lack cohesion the first month of the season and a group of running backs with little space from one through four.
Stan Drayton is one of the happiest people in Columbus. The running backs coach recognizes what he has in his group, choosing to use production over what’s perceived as stateliness and splendor.
“I don’t care how it gets done,” Drayton said. “It’s not a matter of me getting the prototypical 6-foot, 230-pound running back. It’s not that. If it’s 5-foot-9, 200 pounds and if you’re going to do what I’m asking you to do at the level I’m asking you to do it, then we’re going to live with that.”
Six-foot-1, 224 pounds. That’s where Ball stands. On the field, he’s trying to get better without constant worry about taking a misstep and coaches thinking negatively about it. Ball is happy to see his teammates succeed and hopes to stay on the same arc.
“Growing up, you always dream of that starting role,” he said. “When that opportunity is there, you want to do everything that you can to seize it. Going in day in and day out, doing everything that you can to take advantage of that opportunity.”
That entails making big plays and other qualities that become noticeable among the handful of ball carriers. After a standout high school career and multiple speed bumps at Ohio State, Ball has no shortage of ammo to fuel his yearning.
The end result comes after working diligently when cameras aren’t pointed at you and fans aren’t cheering. Once the lights shine bright, roaming the field freely is second nature.