Exploring Ohio State's Candidates to Succeed Ezekiel Elliott at Running Back in 2016

By Eric Seger on January 6, 2016 at 8:35 am
Looking at Ohio State's options to replace Ezekiel Elliott at running back in 2016.

When Ezekiel Elliott took the handoff from J.T. Barrett and raced 47 yards to the University of Phoenix Stadium end zone untouched behind perfect blocking from his teammates, he all but pushed the Fiesta Bowl out of reach of Notre Dame and firmly into Ohio State's grasp.

What the run also did, however, was represent Elliott's exit of Urban Meyer's program.

Sure, Elliott tallied nine more rushing attempts in Ohio State's 44-28 victory over the Fighting Irish New Year's Day after that score, but it was the final exclamation point on the tailback's brilliant career. He didn't tally another carry of more than six yards in the game's final two quarters, making that final sprint to pay dirt the final time Buckeye fans will see him rip off a huge play while donning the scarlet and gray.

It's partly what Elliott became known for his three seasons at Ohio State — huge touchdown jaunts that carried the Buckeyes to victories, in addition to bone-crushing blocking from the running back position. Now, though, Elliott is gone, set to enter the NFL Draft early along with six other underclassmen teammates.

Elliott's on-field legacy is tremendous. He took home the Silver Football as Big Ten Player of the Year in addition to conference Running Back and Offensive Player of the Year honors as voted by coaches and media. Here's a small sample of how Elliott matches up with the fine running back pedigree at Ohio State, courtesy 11W reader Jpfbucks01:

  • Rushing yards, career: 3,961 – second all-time
  • Rush yards, season (2014): 1,878 – second all-time
  • Rush yards season (2015): 1,821 – third all-time
  • YPC, career: 6.7 – first all-time
  • Rush touchdowns, career: 43 – fourth all-time
  • Rush touchdowns, season (2015): 23 – third best all-time
  • 100-yard rush games, career: 22 – second all-time
  • 100-yard rush games, season (2015): 12 – tied first all-time
  • 200-yard rush games, career: 5 – tied first all-time
  • 200-yard rush games, season (2014): 3 – tied first all-time

Elliott is also the only player in Ohio State history to have two seasons of at least two or more 200-yard rushing games. The list of his accolades is quite extensive.

No one can simply step in and replace that production, but who are the candidates up next to try? Let's explore. (Please note: This list is simply in alphabetical order)

Bri'onte Dunn, Redshirt Senior

Dunn's spent the most recent portions of his Buckeye career on special teams, after admittedly being unwilling to put in the time there upon entering the program before the 2012 season.

"It started with kickoff and special teams contributions last year. He was outstanding by the end of the year," Meyer said of Dunn last spring. "Kind of floated around here for a couple of years and did nothing. I mean, nothing."

Dunn did his best to seize an opportunity to show his worth during spring practice before this past season, as Elliott nursed a surgically repaired wrist. It only yielded 14 carries in 2015 for a grand total of 91 yards, but Dunn did visit the end zone once in a 38-0 victory against Hawai'i Sept. 12. His best moments were on special teams, where he contributed on more than one unit.

With fellow class of 2012 signee and running back Warren Ball likely on his way out of the program (Ball was recognized on senior day this year, Dunn was not), the fifth-year player has one final go-round to make an impact albeit with a horde of young talent anxiously waiting behind him.

Curtis Samuel, Junior

What position best suits Samuel's skills? Where will he play in 2016? That's the question many wonder.

"I don’t know. He’s Curtis. He’s a wideout, he’s a receiver. The H receiver, whatever you want to call it, he’s a hybrid," Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith said Aug. 16 at Ohio State media day. "He meets with me, he sits in my room, I coach him."

Samuel ran the ball 17 times for 132 yards and a touchdown in 2015, but also caught 22 passes for 289 yards and two more scores. He was Ohio State's primary kick returner by the end of the season too, and was Elliott's backup at running back during the 2014 national championship season.

Returning Ohio State RB Career Stats
Curtis Samuel JR 75 515 6.9 7
Bri'onte Dunn R-SR 48 287 6.0 3
Mike Weber R-FR - - - -
Antonio Williams FR - - - -

Samuel scored the first touchdown of the 2015 season when he hauled in a pass from Cardale Jones at Virginia Tech, but also showed his talent as a runner when he exploded for a 40-yard score against Western Michigan.

Braxton Miller took a lion's share of Samuel's touches when he moved to H-back this past season, but with him gone, expect the junior from Brooklyn to be more involved in the offense. The only question, is where.

Stay tuned Friday, as Chris will have a breakdown of where Samuel might best be used next season.

Mike Weber, Redshirt Freshman

Weber made noise early in fall camp, becoming the second freshman/newcomer to the program to have his black stripe removed and thus "officially" become a Buckeye.

However, a torn meniscus hindered his development and set him back so far it cost him a season. Weber didn't play a snap in 2015, but earned the nickname "Baby 'Los" from his teammates and coaches, an homage to the running style of former Buckeye back Carlos Hyde. Hyde now plays for the San Francisco 49ers.

Weber's potential is through the roof, and many expected him to work his way into the backup running back slot this season. The injury prevented that, but he was a full participant in Fiesta Bowl practices. He came to Ohio State via Cass Tech High School in Detroit, the subject of a hot recruiting battle between the Buckeyes and Wolverines.

After former running backs coach Stan Drayton bolted to the Chicago Bears, Weber was hurt but stuck it out.

And, according to cleveland.com's Ari Wasserman, is "100 percent happy with Ohio State."

Antonio Williams, Freshman

Williams isn't likely to see much action unless a mess of injuries happen ahead of him on the depth chart, but that doesn't mean Meyer isn't expecting him to produce elsewhere.

A four-star prospect from North Carolina, Williams took the spot vacated by Kareem Walker in the 2016 class. Walker committed to Michigan, so its clear the Buckeyes are happy to have Williams bought into the culture in Columbus.

Regardless who fills Elliott's shoes next season, none of them will be able to fully perform at his level right away in 2016. Elliott is a rare breed, and the horse that Ohio State's offense desperately needed this season as Meyer figured out what to do at quarterback.

The expectations even though he is gone, however, don't change.

"We have some good young backs and we're excited about those guys," offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said after the Fiesta Bowl. "We'll just enjoy the offseason for a little bit, but get those guys ready. We'll have a strong running game. We have good players, we'll have to rebuild our O-line a little bit. We lose three good players, lose a good tailback, lose a good tight end. But we have good guys in our program and that's what player development is."

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