Uncertainty at Running Back Leads to Some Concern from Urban Meyer

By Kyle Rowland on August 1, 2014 at 1:05 pm
Ezekiel Elliott has the early lead to replace Carlos Hyde in the Ohio State backfield.

We think of football coaches as simply that – football coaches. But they are human beings, as much as people might think they’re robots programmed to read units and call out plays.

Jim Tressel holds two degrees in education. During his coaching career, it became apparent Tressel thought of himself as a teacher first, not a coach. Attending class, graduating players and other life lessons became equally as important as winning on the field.   

Urban Meyer also has used his degree throughout a success-ridden coaching career. The psychology grad from the University of Cincinnati can motivate players to a level few coaches reach. It’s been most apparent at linebacker, which was outlined in an Eleven Warriors article Friday morning. If Meyer believes on-field performance is lacking, he won’t shy away from letting his players know.

With the sudden emergence of the linebacker corps, attention has shifted to the offensive backfield. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde each spent time as the apple of Meyer’s eye in 2012 and 2013. Both are now gone, though, and while there are several candidates to take over the production, none are proven.

Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn, Warren Ball and Curtis Samuel have the appearance of breakout players. But without a full season of collisions, it’s difficult to come to any conclusions. Hyde ran for more than 1,500 yards last year and scored 15 rushing touchdowns. Those are numbers you don’t merely replace with a tailback who’s shown glimpses of being a star.

“I’m a little concerned,” Meyer admitted. “I see several talented players, but for some reason they haven’t played very well. I’m honest. When someone says why isn’t a guy playing, I can give you a lot of reasons, but [number one is] he’s just not good enough to play. It’s not because he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. When you’re not playing, it’s because you’re not good enough to play.”

That means Elliott and Samuel have reason to be confident. Elliott gained 262 yards on 30 carries as a freshman, and Samuel became an instant sensation during the spring. The early enrollee has a burst of speed and durability that wasn’t expected to be showcased so quickly.

On Mike and Mike, Meyer said a starter hasn’t been named, but pointed to Elliott receiving the first opportunity when fall camp begins Aug. 4.

“He’s not the starter," he said. "He hasn’t earned it yet.”

Neither has Samuel, although it’s apparent he’ll play early and often after Meyer said the true freshman stole his heart.

But it will take more than two running backs to keep the offensive production at 2013’s record output. Life in the Big Ten isn’t about cream puffs and cake, no matter what some fan or expert says. The conference is rugged, physical and especially daunting when the calendar flips to November.

“I think we’re going to have to have somewhat of a rotation,” Meyer said. “Carlos was a 25, 30 carries-a-game type guy. We’re going to have to be more balanced. You might see us play two of those guys at the same time.”

Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman prefer a 60-40 run-pass split in play calls. A new offensive line and backfield combined with a veteran quarterback and improved wide receiver corps could give the Buckeyes better opportunities to throw the football.

The Smiths, Dunns and Balls of the world have been at Ohio State for what seems like a decade. Smith is entering his senior season in “now or never” mode. He came to Columbus with praise, collecting comparisons to Eddie George with visions of becoming the Buckeyes’ next great running back.

Instead, missteps – both on and off the field – have cost him dearly. In 33 career games, he has zero starts, but holds a five-yards-per-rush average. Smith’s totals read: 83 carries for 448 yards and four touchdowns.

Dunn is an even more curious case. He burst onto the scene in 2012, and then receded to the sidelines last season with a redshirt year. Ball’s main issue has stemmed from being buried on the depth chart. Ability is not a problem. It's not for any member of the trio.

“We have three guys who have been here a couple years and haven’t played,” Meyer said. “It’s not because of Carlos Hyde. If you’re a great player, we can do something to get you on the field.

“Rod Smith is talented, he just has to put everything together. Then you have Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball. There’s a lot of competition. There’s no hierarchy. I anticipate midway through training camp we’ll go ahead and announce the starter.”

Throughout the month of August, Meyer, playing the role of master motivator, will revert to his UC days and dust off the psychology books, intent on rebuilding a block needed to capture a national championship. 

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