After years of moving him back and forth between running back and H-back and never seeming to quite find a way to get him on the field, Ohio State’s coaches challenged Demario McCall to step up and become the Buckeyes’ No. 2 running back this offseason.
McCall wasn’t able to do that during spring practices. He was sidelined by a calf injury for most of the spring, and as a result, Master Teague and Marcus Crowley took most of the reps at running back behind J.K. Dobbins in March and April.
With the spot behind Dobbins on the depth chart still wide open entering preseason camp, though, McCall had an opportunity once again to seize the second-string running back job for himself. And this time, he’s been able to take advantage.
Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford said Wednesday that if the season began right now, McCall would be the second running back on the field, and Alford is confident that he's ready to finally play a significant role in the Buckeyes’ offense.
“Probably about a week ago that I finally said this is the guy that I would turn to,” Alford said. “Because he’s done a nice job, and it’s been a long camp, but he’s done a nice job for us.”
While Dobbins is expected to take the lion’s share of carries in Ohio State’s backfield this year, Alford and the Buckeyes still want to have a healthy two-man rotation at the running back position to keep Dobbins, which made it imperative for someone to step up in camp and prove they were ready for regular playing time at the position.
For McCall, who is entering his fourth year at Ohio State, that’s been a long time. Despite being hyped up as a potential breakout player for each of the last three offseasons, he has played only occasionally in his career to date. That’s been partially because he’s had trouble staying healthy, so he’s grateful that he’s been back at full strength in the weeks leading up to this season.
“I haven’t felt that way in a pretty long time,” McCall said Wednesday. “I got back to 100 percent over the summer, and I’ve been grinding through the summer, got bigger, got stronger and faster. So I’ve been feeling pretty healthy ever since.”
While McCall has always been an explosive back with big-play ability, though, he’s had to learn how to become a more consistent player, not only with the ball in his hands but also as a pass blocker. He’s still only 196 pounds, but he feels like he’s finally gotten where he needs to be as a pass blocker that his coaches can trust him to play in key situations.
Alford has seen McCall step up as a veteran leader in the running back room, too, along with Dobbins, which was needed following the departure of Mike Weber from last year.
“He’s providing leadership, he’s making plays, he’s playing at a good rate of speed right now and doing well,” Alford said. “I want to see him make plays for our football team on a consistent basis. I want him to be the best player that he can be. I want him to continue to try to be a leader as an older statesman in the locker room and in our room. And just compete at a high level every day. And thus far in camp, he’s done that.”
After years of unrealized hype, McCall recognizes that the time for him to perform up to his potential could be now or never. And now that he’s finally in position to have a consistent role in the running back rotation, he’s optimistic he can make that happen.
“I’m finally getting to show that now is the time,” McCall said. “I want to show them the Demario McCall that they know. That they’ve been seeing, the little flashes, I want to show them the consistency now.”
McCall will have to be consistent in order to keep the No. 2 running back job, because the Buckeyes’ other running backs are still trying to prove that they belong on the field, too. His strongest continued competition for playing time could come from Crowley, who Alford said would be the next man up behind Dobbins and McCall if the Buckeyes played a game right now.
“He’s really come into his own the last week or so, week-and-a-half,” Alford said of Crowley. “He had the ebbs and flows of being a true freshman, and the highs and lows and the peaks and the valleys and the plateaus, and he’s really, you can tell in the past three or four days, he’s really done a nice job. You can tell he’s playing with a lot more confidence.”
Crowley has been at Ohio State since January, when he arrived in Columbus as an early enrollee, so that gave him a head start on fellow true freshman Steele Chambers. Alford said Chambers has been pushing to make a move up the depth chart too, though, with how he’s performed in his first camp as a Buckeye.
“Steele’s right there too,” Alford said. “They’ve both done a really good job, and there’s very little separation at all.”
Coming out of the spring, Teague looked like he would be McCall’s top competition for the No. 2 running back job as a redshirt freshman. However, Teague has been limited this preseason with an undisclosed injury, which has set him back in the competition even though Alford said he has made strides in his second year with the team.
“He understands the complexity of our offense better, and the things that we’re asking him to do, so he understands conceptually better, which is good,” Alford said of Teague. “But first thing is just gotta get him back and back healthy, which he will be soon.”