His players hate it. Frankly, it looks a little out of place on a football field. But the padded bat that never leaves Tony Alford's hand during an Ohio State practice is all the motivation Mike Weber, Demario McCall and Co. need to be sure the ball never hits the turf after it touches their hands.
“When we get the ball, he wants us to squeeze it, tuck it, chin-chin,” McCall said on Thursday. “So as they're swinging the bat, I mean, they're swinging at the ball. That's what the defense is doing, swipe at the ball.”
Good defenses capitalize on mistakes made by opposing offenses to create turnovers. Great defenses create opportunities for themselves by punching out of a ball carrier's mitts, like McCall said.
Like any high-profile football program, putting the ball on the ground it not is allowed at Ohio State. Which is why Alford carries his bat around. What varies from playful to serious swipes at the football and the arms and hands that carry it are meant to force the act of protecting the most prized possession on the field into becoming second nature.
“If I take that bat and hit that ball and you're not carrying that ball properly, the ball comes out. It's better than me just tapping my hand on it,” Alford said. “It's an emphasis point where we're swinging that bat at them. It's just an emphasis and always having that ball secured.”
McCall said the bat was first brought to practice by Urban Meyer, who yielded to Alford and the rest of his assistants. Alford claims it is used during drills by all the skill positions to ensure the necessary steps are taken for ball security. Yet Alford and a graduate assistant or two are the only men to carry it around practice in the three brief sessions Ohio State has allowed reporters to watch so far this spring.
“You can't lay the ball on the ground. Just can't do it. Go back to the Clemson game when Mike had a couple and it's just not acceptable.”– Tony Alford
“I get to swing at them,” Alford grinned. “I like it.”
“I'm going to start hiding it, man,” said McCall. “That thing hurts.”
“He can hide one. I know where the rest of them are,” Alford said, adding that he has five different bats tucked away at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Ohio State's running backs did fairly well holding onto the football in 2016. Weber, Curtis Samuel and McCall — its three top rushers not named J.T. Barrett — combined for only five fumbles. The only problem in Alford's mind, however, is more than half of them were by his starter.
“I think we had what, I think Mike had three fumbles last year,” Alford said. “That's three too many.”
Two of those came in the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson, a frustrating night for Ohio State's entire offense. It led to changes on the coaching staff, with exits from Tim Beck and Ed Warinner and the additions of Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day. Tempo has been the name of the game so far this spring for the Buckeyes, something Alford noted should bring with it more plays.
More plays should mean more touches for guys like Weber, who in 2016 became just the third Ohio State freshman running back ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He was named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year for his efforts.
Weber only ran it five times for 24 yards against the Tigers. The two fumbles made for an ugly end to an otherwise extremely productive first year as the starting running back in place of superstar Ezekiel Elliott. Alford knows Weber will be the main card in the deck of Ohio State's backfield in 2017 because of his experience but is confident in McCall and likes what he sees from true freshman J.K. Dobbins. The latter recently moved past Antonio Williams, who is battling a hamstring injury, on the depth chart.
The Buckeyes need more playmakers than what they had a year ago. That's why Alford carries his bat, swinging away, in an effort to prepare them.
More Ohio State running back work, but with the quarterbacks doing the speed option left pic.twitter.com/SHOzuBo26v— Eric Seger (@EricSeger33) March 28, 2017
“That's what we do, so that's something we harp on,” Alford said. “Knock on wood, we've been pretty good this spring thus far with that.”
The running backs better be because if not, they shudder to think of the consequences. They are, according to them, horrible. Even if they are nameless.
“I don't know what we call it. But it's tough. It's tough,” McCall said. “The game is called, 'Don't put the ball on the ground.'”
Added Alford: “We run a lot. It's awful ... It's called, 'Get Really Tired.' It's called, 'Don't Put The Ball On The Ground.' Then we don't have to worry about it. But no, it's a staple. You can't lay the ball on the ground. Just can't do it. Go back to the Clemson game when Mike had a couple and it's just not acceptable. That's something that's my fault. I gotta do a better job. Mike was pretty good up through the year until the end and that's on me.”
And until it's perfect, that bat will remain as an extension of the running back coach's arm.
“It's an emphasis. It's not just for us, we use it for all the skill players,” Alford said. “I gotta do a better job coaching it, and I am.”