When Tony Alford was asked Friday for his first impressions of Dallan Hayden, Ohio State’s running backs coach described his new pupil as someone who “goes 100 miles an hour.”
For a freshman running back going through his first practices at the collegiate level, that can be both a good and a bad thing.
“We're not going to have to ask him to go faster,” Alford said. “Sometimes we got to try to get the reins on him and back him down a little bit and slow him down. But that's probably the thing that’s impressed me the most is he goes full speed. He only knows one speed. And it's impressive.”
Hayden was not an early enrollee, so he’s only been at Ohio State for a couple of months and has only gone through two practices as a Buckeye so far. But he’s already made an impression on both his position coach and his fellow running backs with his raw ability and how quickly he’s started to improve.
“Man, Dallan is a real special back,” Evan Pryor said Friday. “I think when you talk about me, Trey (Henderson), Miyan (Williams), all the good backs coming through, you gotta mention Dallan’s name as well. He can do some things better than I could as a freshman. Coming in this summer, I definitely wouldn't have the playbook down as much as he has right now. So he's done a great job coming in, learning things, now he's starting to put it to the field in his actions. He's starting to get reps, and it's just all starting to come together. I'm excited for him.”
Learning hasn’t always come easily for Hayden. As a kid, Hayden says he struggled to learn to read, which inspired him to raise money for Coaching for Literacy, a nonprofit based in his hometown of Memphis that encourages child literacy. But Hayden overcame that challenge with the help of his parents, and he believes the lessons he’s learned from his father – former NFL running back Aaron Hayden – have prepared him to take on whatever challenges he might face at Ohio State.
“I’ve been training with him since I was young, and we've been doing stuff that younger kids probably couldn’t do, and it’s definitely prepared me, I feel like,” Hayden said Friday during his first interview session as a Buckeye.
The influence of Hayden’s father, who spent four years in the NFL after playing at Tennessee, is one reason why Alford is confident Hayden will succeed at Ohio State. Particularly, Alford sees the toughness Hayden’s family has instilled in him, which Alford said was what stood out most to him when evaluating Hayden as a high school running back.
“His dad, listen now: With Aaron, you try to be soft over there, you're going to have a problem in that household,” Alford quipped. “So that’s the thing that probably impressed me the most. Very serious about his improvement, and a tough guy.”
A four-star recruit ranked as the No. 24 running back in the 2022 class, Hayden drew some comparisons during the recruiting process to Ezekiel Elliott, who was not as highly touted as some Ohio State running back prospects (though he ultimately finished the 2013 cycle as its No. 69 overall prospect) at the time of his commitment.
Hayden, who’s a bit smaller than Elliott at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, will gladly welcome those comparisons, as he says Elliott has “been my favorite back for a while now.”
“His ability to get downhill, finish through contact and he runs with a purpose,” Hayden said of why he admires Elliott.
Elliott’s success as a Buckeye helped inspire Hayden’s decision to wear the scarlet and gray himself, though he says the driving factors in his decision were his relationships with Alford and Ryan Day and Alford’s overall track record of developing running backs like Elliott and J.K. Dobbins.
“Coach Alford is one of the best teachers in the business,” Hayden said. “I feel like here, Coach Alford was just different and his plan to develop me was better than anybody else.”
Hayden’s trying to soak in as much knowledge as he can from Alford as he starts his Ohio State career.
“I feel like I'm getting better each and every day,” Hayden said. “Everything Coach Alford’s doing is for a reason, for sure. Obviously, his track record, all the backs he's coached have done very well. So he obviously knows what he's doing, and I just try to take his coaching to make me a better player.”
With Henderson, Williams and Pryor all on the depth chart in front of him, Hayden isn’t likely to see a lot of playing time as a true freshman. But he feels fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from them, too.
“They're all really unique players,” Hayden said. “I can learn something from each and every one of them. And I'm just glad to be in the room with those guys because it's making me better.”
As Alford suggested, Hayden acknowledged he has had to learn how to slow himself down as he gets acclimated to life as a Buckeye.
“We had a walkthrough yesterday and I was kind of going too fast. Coach Day told me to slow down,” Hayden said with a laugh. “That's kind of always been an issue for me. All I know is go full speed. But I'm learning to slow it down now.”
That said, it’s always a positive when a coach knows how much his player cares about improving at his craft. And Alford hasn’t had to question that at all with Hayden.
“He's very hard on himself. He's the guy that you can tell he wants to do things perfectly, and it bothers him immensely if he doesn't,” Alford said. “He's got some skills and he can run and he's just got to just learn the game. Settle down, take a deep breath.”
“Dallan goes 100 miles an hour. And so the biggest thing is we gotta get him to kind of slow down and take a deep breath.”– Tony Alford on Dallan Hayden
Hayden’s going to have to learn a lot quickly over the next month if he’s going to have a chance to get on the field in Ohio State’s season opener against Notre Dame. No matter how much he plays, however, that game will hold some extra significance for Hayden – not only because it’s his first game as a Buckeye, but also because it will be against the other school he seriously considered before committing to Ohio State.
“It was between either here and Notre Dame, everybody probably knows that,” Hayden said. “It'll be a good game.”
Ultimately, Hayden was swayed to choose the Buckeyes because of what he felt Ohio State could offer him both on and off the field.
“Real Life Wednesdays, when Coach Day presented that to me and my family, we were very impressed with that, because no other school had that, I don't think,” Hayden said.
Going into his first season as a Buckeye, Hayden is taking a patient approach to playing time. He’s confident he’ll have the opportunity to succeed at Ohio State as long as he continues to put the work in.
“I just feel like I gotta keep getting better, keep stacking days and I'll be fine,” Hayden said. “Just being the best version of myself I can be and always making improvements to my game.”
Whenever Hayden does get his opportunity to take some carries in the Buckeyes’ backfield, he believes his fast-moving approach to the game will stand out to Ohio State fans.
“I feel like I have my own style of running and I feel like Coach Alford is just gonna develop that even better,” Hayden said. “Always trying to get downhill. I can try to outrun, make a move. I just feel like my benefit is always being full speed.”