Understandably, Marcus Crowley felt some frustration as he watched from the sidelines for most of Ohio State’s 2020 season.
Crowley showed flashes of potential playing in late-game situations as a true freshman in 2019, running for 237 yards and a touchdown on just 25 carries while also catching a 7-yard touchdown. His promising freshman year came to an early end, however, when he tore his ACL during the final minutes of the Buckeyes’ Nov. 9 win over Maryland.
After suffering what Tony Alford described last October as a “minor setback” in his recovery, Crowley didn’t play in any of Ohio State’s five regular-season games last year. He finally returned to the field in December, playing on kickoff coverage in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern and the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. But he didn’t see any playing time at running back in those games, even with Master Teague sidelined by a concussion, as true freshman Miyan Williams got the call over Crowley to spell Trey Sermon.
Crowley’s turn to play finally came in the national championship game against Alabama. After Sermon was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury, with Williams not at the game due to COVID-19, Ohio State turned to Crowley to split snaps with Teague. He wasn’t able to make much happen against the Crimson Tide, though, as he gained just 14 yards on six carries and had just one catch for four yards in the Buckeyes’ 52-24 loss.
Those struggles led to an in-game apology from Crowley to Alford.
“He’s standing on the sideline and he looks up and he says, ‘Hey, man, I apologize,’” Alford recalled last week. “This is in the middle of the game, I said, ‘Apologize? What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘You’ve been saying I wasn’t ready.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’m not.’ He goes, ‘You were right.’ And it took him playing, kind of getting knocked off-balance because he wasn’t strong enough and things like that where upon himself, he was like, ‘Yeah, I see it. You’re right.’”
While Crowley was cleared to play in the Buckeyes’ final three games of last season, he still wasn’t quite himself due to the lingering effects of his knee injury. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help matters, as he was home for three months last offseason when he should have been on campus rehabbing with Ohio State’s athletic trainers, and he believes that lengthened his recovery.
“I didn’t have the same treatment back home that I would have up here,” Crowley told reporters last week. “Up here I would be doing treatment every day, working on necessities, and back home it was kind of like I had to do everything on my own.”
Specifically, Crowley felt he didn’t have the same ability to make defenders miss against Alabama that he does when he’s healthy.
“At the end of last season, I still wasn’t able to cut as sharply or as quickly as I can now,” Crowley said.
Now, though, Crowley believes he is back to 100 percent. While reporters and members of the general public haven’t yet been able to see that with our own eyes, Ohio State posted a photo and video last week that indicated Crowley broke off a long run on the Buckeyes’ first day in pads of spring practice:
Alford liked what he had seen from Crowley in the Buckeyes’ first two practices when they met with the media last Tuesday.
“I think he’s getting better,” Alford said. “He really has done a good job of committing himself or trying to commit himself to getting stronger, and more girth and strength so he doesn’t get knocked off his feet as easily. His change of direction. But Marcus is a competitive kid and he’s had a really good offseason. He’s had a really good offseason. So I’m anxious to see where this continues to go.
“He’s gaining the weight, he’s getting the weight on that we want him to have. Now is he gonna be able to hold it and sustain the weight as we want him to do? But he’s had a really good focus these past couple of months during the offseason as we move into the spring, and I’m really excited to see what he does, because Marcus has got a lot of talent.”
Even though he was sidelined for most of last offseason, Crowley believes he is a better running back now than he was as a freshman.
“We haven’t played really much football, but I personally feel like I’ve made a lot of improvements since my freshman year even after the injury,” Crowley said. “So we’re gonna see.”
The question now that he is healthy, as Crowley enters his third year at Ohio State, is whether he’ll be able to earn his way into the rotation this season. Along with fellow third-year Steele Chambers, Crowley is now one of the Buckeyes’ most veteran running backs behind Master Teague. But Williams’ impressive play in limited action last season could put him ahead of Crowley and Chambers in the pecking order, while freshman running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Evan Pryor are candidates to climb the depth chart quickly.
If Crowley is going to earn a consistent role in Ohio State’s offense next season, he’s going to need outperform those younger running backs this spring and summer. If he doesn’t, and any of Williams, Henderson or Pryor are able to establish themselves this fall, his outlook to play a major role in the Buckeyes’ offense even beyond this season could become bleak.
For now, though, Crowley says he’s just trying to focus on personal improvement rather than where he stands on the depth chart. He believes his athleticism and decision-making ability can enable him to make an impact for the Buckeyes this season, and he’s working hard to be the best running back he can be, but he knows his teammates are doing the same.
“I really don’t have a view on the competition,” Crowley said. “Everyone’s putting in their work equally, and we’re all striving to be the best we can be.”