Ohio State didn’t have much of a running back rotation last year.
The reasoning wasn’t particularly complicated, either. It simply didn’t need multiple tailbacks splitting reps. Instead, eventual second-round NFL draft pick J.K. Dobbins set a program record with 2,003 rushing yards on 301 carries, reaching the end zone for 21 touchdowns on the ground. With the third-year stud in the backfield, position coach Tony Alford rarely needed to insert backup Master Teague or anyone else into games for meaningful carries.
Such a strategy won’t be implemented this fall. Rather, the Buckeyes plan to utilize a multi-back system that will heavily feature Teague and Oklahoma graduate transfer Trey Sermon.
“I think it'll be a 50-50 ballpark (split between Teague and Sermon) as we start,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said on Friday afternoon.
Had the season started on Aug. 31 as originally scheduled, Sermon perhaps would have held a stranglehold on the starting job, taking the majority of carries as Teague worked his way back to the field from an Achilles injury. The later-than-usual opening kickoff plays in Teague’s favor, however.
All indications have been that the third-year running back, who suffered his injury during Ohio State’s first spring practice in March, has steadily healed over the course of the past six months. Teague did what Ryan Day once predicted, attacking his rehab to get himself to the point where he’s fully involved in practices. Wilson said Friday that Teague is “doing everything and looks really good.”
With Teague’s health no longer in question, he and Sermon will take relatively equal snaps and carries when the season begins.
“We've got five guys who are getting a lot of work, the bulk of it being split between Master and Trey with the ones and then Steele (Chambers) and the other guys are managing our second team right now,” Wilson said.
A combination of Sermon and Teague pairs together two tailbacks who’ve dealt with recent injuries but have shown flashes of high-level running ability over the past couple of years.
Sermon’s LCL injury capped his opportunities as a junior at Oklahoma. Still, he managed to accumulate over 2,000 yards in three seasons as a Sooner. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder averaged 6.1 yards per carry and racked up 21 touchdowns at the Big 12 powerhouse. His largest workload came in 2018 when splitting carries with Kennedy Brooks. Sermon managed 947 yards on 164 rushes for 5.8 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns that season.
He could find himself in a similar role as a Buckeye in 2020.
“Trey has came in and he's very smart, looks very good, catches it well, understands what we have,” Wilson said. “I haven't seen him with pads in the hard practice environment or the game environment. You feel comfortable there.”
Teague battled a more serious injury this year than Sermon, having injured his Achilles in the spring. That’s no longer hindering him anymore, though, which sets him up for his most important role yet.
The 5-foot-11, 225-pounder who Mickey Marotti said is one of the team’s most physically fit players rarely played as a true freshman. He recorded 135 carries for 789 yards and four touchdowns as a second-year tailback last season, though most of his touches – especially when he racked up yardage – came in the many blowout victories throughout the regular season.
In a 50-50 split as predicted by his offensive coordinator, Teague might not have a huge uptick in touches in 2020 from last fall, but the ball will be in his hands during significantly more important moments in games.
Beyond Teague and Sermon, Wilson said he expects Alford “getting to where three guys are playing.”
“I think every year you've got to have more than one,” Wilson said. “It's even getting to the point in the college game with tempo you need to maybe have more than two – you need to maybe have three.”
Some expected Marcus Crowley to contend for a spot in the running back rotation. He suffered an ACL injury late last season, however, and remains on the mend. Wilson said he’s not “quite full speed” yet.
If any other running back can push for touches early in the season, it would likely be Chambers. He’s the only true running back on scholarship to go through the year without rehabbing an injury. But his only collegiate action came in limited snaps last year, while taking a redshirt, with 19 carries for 135 yards and a touchdown.
A more veteran option could be fifth-year senior Demario McCall, who’s still bouncing between running back and wide receiver. Both Day and Wilson said this week he’s being looked at as a “hybrid guy.”
Most likely, though, this will be a rushing attack built on Sermon and Teague taking the bulk of the carries behind what could become one of the nation’s top offensive lines.
“With the (running backs) we have now, I really don't think we're going to skip a beat,” tight end Jake Hausmann said on Friday. “We have the O-line to do it. We have the running backs to do it. We have two or three really talented running backs back there that can share the role. They can split the load. And then we have a veteran O-line that just loves mauling people. It's awesome seeing them work.
“J.K. was a great running back last year, but I really don't think we're going to skip a beat. It's going to be fun to watch those two guys.”