Mike Weber accomplished something last season only two other Ohio State freshman running backs did before him.
Weber tallied 1,096 rushing yards during the 2016 campaign and became just the third freshman in school history to top the 1,000-yard mark. The only other two to accomplish that feat were Maurice Clarett (1,237 yards in 2002) and Robert Smith (1,126 yards in 1990). Both Clarett and Smith were true freshmen during those seasons while Weber was a redshirt freshman for his, but it’s still impressive company nonetheless.
By most accounts, Weber’s first season as the heir to Ezekiel Elliott was a success. Fair or unfair, Weber will always be compared to the man he replaced. An impossible standard, really, but it’s also reality. Topping the 1,000-yard mark in his first season is quite an accomplish, though.
But as well as Weber’s season went, it ended with somewhat of a dud — both for him personally and for the Buckeyes as a team. Weber carried the ball just 16 times total in Ohio State’s final two games for 50 yards and a touchdown. In the Buckeyes’ 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, the Detroit native was given just five carries and gained 24 yards.
It was a bitter end to a rather successful year.
“Guys around here, we bring it up a lot just to keep that taste in our mouth and find something to go hard about,” Weber said last week.
Weber hopes to erase that taste as he preps for his second season as Ohio State’s starting running back. His position coach, Tony Alford, said the now redshirt sophomore tailback is off to a great start this spring.
“He’s growing up,” Alford said. “I’ve said that all along and every time there’s a little bit more of the growth process going on. He’s a real dude if you will.”
“His approach to the game, his approach to how he takes care of his body, his approach to the younger players in the room, it’s all changed,” Alford continued. “The thing is we want it to be like that immediately but some guys it takes a little longer. It’s a maturation process.”
Perhaps that’s because Weber now has a bit of competition pushing him in the running backs meeting room. Demario McCall and Antonio Williams were both true freshmen a year ago and really weren’t ready for full-time duties. Both are a year older now and the Buckeyes also have an ultra-talented early enrollee named J.K. Dobbins already making waves.
“I see [Weber is going to be pushed a little bit,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “The best thing that can happen is competition and we didn’t have much last year at that position.”
According to Alford and Meyer, McCall and Dobbins are battling for the No. 2 spot right now behind Weber. A hamstring injury has sidelined Williams, who must get back on the field to re-join the competition.
All three have a long way to go before they catch Weber, but high-level competition is good for all involved.
“Right now it’s, I hate to say it, but it’s pretty sizable,” Alford said when asked about the gap between Weber and the competition. “But Mike’s played a lot of football. He’s a very experienced player. And not only is he experienced, he’s skilled too. The gap will close as these guys gain experience and reps.”
Weber said he spent some time this offseason watching film of former Indiana running back and Tevin Coleman to get a feel for what his role will be in Ohio State’s new offense under Kevin Wilson. Coleman ran for over 2,000 yards in his final season with the Hoosiers under Wilson’s guidance.
There could be more opportunities for Weber to showcase his talents this season.
“I feel like he’ll run the ball more and he finds different ways, different schemes to run the ball,” Weber said of Wilson. “He’s more of a grit guy. He’s coached a lot of grit backs in the past and that’s something we as running backs appreciate.”
With the exception of how it ended, Weber’s freshman season was as successful as just about any player in Ohio State history at the running back position. Weber hopes to build on that in Year 2.
“I feel a lot different, actually,” Weber said. “I know the game more. I know what the receivers are doing, what the tight ends are doing and it slows the game down a little bit.”
“I’m going to keep going from here.”