With Meyer, Buckeyes Running Back to the Future
By Tony Gerdeman
Ohio — Back in the summer, one of the concerns amongst the Buckeye
faithful about Urban Meyer becoming head coach at Ohio State was his
lack of reliance upon his running backs.
This is Ohio State after all, and running backs have been the lifeblood
of the Buckeyes for decades. If Meyer did one day take the job, would
he recognize this fact and act accordingly?
Of the few downsides to the prospects of Meyer at Ohio State, this was
one of the most common. It's also one that I happened to agree with.
After all, the stats don't lie—Urban Meyer has never produced a
1,000-yard rusher as a head coach.
But with Meyer now actually at the helm, I decided that it was time to
look a bit closer at the statistics. What does the running game look
like under Meyer, and what did it look like in the past?
And why was there never a 1,000-yard rusher? Was it by choice? Was it
over-reliance on the quarterback? Was it just happenstance? Or a lack
of talent? Maybe it was actually all four.
But after looking at the numbers, what it wasn't, however, was a lack of reliance upon the run.
What The Statistics Actually Say
While Meyer has never had a 1,000-yard rusher, he has had three players gain 1,000 yards in a season, but with yardage lost factored in, none of them actually netted the milestone.
The first came in 2003 with Utah running back Brandon Warfield.
Warfield finished with 976 yards rushing during a twelve-game season.
However, he was injured early in a game against New Mexico after just
two carries and missed the next two games in their entirety.
So yes, Warfield failed to rush for 1,000 yards, but had he actually
played an entire game in any of the three games that he was injured in,
he would have certainly hit 1,000 yards on the season.
And had he not been injured at all that season, his statistics project out to nearly 1,300 yards rushing.
As it was, he finished 30th in the nation in rushing, averaging 97.6
yards rushing per game. If you adjust for the three games he missed,
that number goes up to 107.8 yards rushing per game, which would have
put him 21st in the nation.
Oh, and he averaged 26 carries per game when he was healthy that
season. Jim Tressel has never had a running back even approach that
Granted, this details just one workhorse tailback in Urban Meyer's ten
seasons, but it does show that he's not afraid to put a heavy load on
one running back.
The other two times Meyer had a player actually gain 1,000 yards
rushing was Tim Tebow in 2007 and 2009, but of course yards lost
actually pushed Tebow down to 895 yards rushing in 2007 and 910 in 2009.
If you take out the number of sacks in 2007, Tebow still would have
finished just short of 1,000 yards rushing, but in 2009, he would have
easily been over the milestone.
So no, Urban Meyer has never had a 1,000-yard rusher. But he did have a
running back who rushed for over 100 yards per game when he was
healthy, and he also had a quarterback who fell victim to the college
rule that sacks count as rushing yards instead of passing yards like
they do in the NFL.
Spreading the Ball
Woody Hayes used to say he wanted "A pair and a spare" in reference to
the number of running backs he liked to have on hand, but under Jim
Tressel, the norm was to have one bell cow and a pair or spare to spell
In Tressel's ten seasons at Ohio State he had a 1,000-yard rusher seven
times. The three times that he did not came down to lack of talent at
tailback (2003, 2004) and a reliance upon a running quarterback (2009).
As it would turn out, 2003 and 2004 were the two worst rushing seasons
under Jim Tressel, ranking 84th and 70th in the nation for their
However, despite no 1,000-yard rusher in 2009, the Buckeyes ranked 18th
in the nation in rushing, averaging 195.38 yards rushing per game. To
that point in his career, it was Tressel's highest-ranked rushing team
They spread the ball around and didn't rely upon just one player to get the job done, and it was remarkably effective.
The 2009 Buckeyes were a unique team for Jim Tressel—they were his only
team with three players to rush for at least 500 yards. (The 2011 team
also accomplished this feat.)
Herron (600 yards), Pryor (779 yards) and Brandon Saine (739 yards)
formed Jim Tressel's highest-ranked rushing attack to that point, and
he didn't even have an 800-yard rusher.
His 2010 team then went out and shattered Tressel's previous best with
a junior Terrelle Pryor and Boom Herron, averaging 220.08 yards rushing
and finishing 14th in the nation.
The 2010 Buckeyes had a great one-two punch in Pryor (754 yards
rushing) and Herron (1,155), but they also had four other talented
running backs on the roster looking for work. For instance, Carlos
Hyde, who rushed for 549 yards this past season, finished sixth on the
team in rushing in 2010.
Urban Meyer's teams, on the other hand, had three players rush for at
least 500 yards five times in his ten seasons as a head coach. In fact,
in each of those five seasons, his teams averaged over 200 yards
rushing per game. The only time Jim Tressel's team averaged 200 yards
rushing per game was in 2010.
Of note among those Meyer teams was his 2008 Florida Gators, who had
four players rush for over 600 yards, and a fifth (Emmanuel Moody) rush
for 417 yards.
Amazingly, none of them rushed for more than 700 yards. Tim Tebow led
the team with 673 yards, followed closely by Percy Harvin's 660, and
then by Chris Rainey's 652 and Jeffrey Demps' 605.
That Gator team finished tenth in the nation in rushing, averaging
231.14 yards on the ground per game. They carried the ball five more
times than the Buckeyes that season and rushed for 734 more yards and
21 more touchdowns in the process.
Yes, running backs finished third and fourth on the team in rushing
behind Tebow and Harvin, but can anybody blame Meyer for making Harvin
an integral part of his running game? He was one of the most dynamic
playmakers in college football in his three seasons and Meyer made sure
he touched the ball as much as he could handle.
Remember Ted Ginn's career? Do you think he was utilized to his fullest?
Four times in Urban Meyer's career his teams have finished 13th or
better in the nation in rushing. Tressel's best finish was 14th in 2010.
Also, Urban Meyer's teams outrushed Jim Tressel's teams six times from 2001 to 2010.
A bell cow is nice to have, but it's not the only way to get things done.
No More Workhorse Blues
To say that Urban Meyer is against having a workhorse, however, could
be considered a contradiction to a great deal of what the statistics
We have already mentioned the 2003 Utah Utes with Brandon Warfield's
237 carries, but he also had a workhorse for three seasons with Tim
No, it's not always ideal to have a quarterback be your workhorse, but
isn't there something nice about having a workhorse who can give the
ball to someone else if he doesn't have an opening? After all, that's
basically what the zone read is.
How many times have we seen running backs stopped in the backfield over
the years? The zone read attempts to eliminate that outcome. Tebow
could have had many more carries than what he ended up with had he not
been giving the ball up on the zone read.
And while it's understandable to lament the fact that there wasn't a
single running back on his Florida teams who could be counted on to
pick up a third and one, let's not forget that Tebow was one of the
great short-yardage runners we have seen in college football in the
last decade. Just ask Ohio State, who saw him do it as a freshman in
the BCS National Championship Game.
Just think of it this way—which do you think is easier to stop on third
and three, the guy who you know is going to get the ball, or the guy
who gets the ball but might not keep it?
And while he didn't necessarily have a "workhorse" on his undefeated
2004 Utah team, Meyer did have a pair of running backs who combined for
1,456 yards rushing. The "spare" on that team was quarterback Alex
Smith, who rushed for 631 yards and ten touchdowns on his way to
becoming the number one overall draft pick in the NFL Draft.
Of course, we probably shouldn't forget that when Meyer won his first
national championship his leading rusher (Deshawn Wynn) rushed for just
699 yards, with the next highest running back total being 282 yards by
How Does This Translate to 2012?
Considering that Ohio State currently has the most dynamic running
threat at quarterback in the school's history, expect Braxton Miller to
be heavily involved in what the Buckeyes do on the ground next season.
However, there are enough options around him to keep him from having too much on his plate.
"What we have to be able to do is adapt," Meyer said last week.
"I don’t really have a good feel for our speed right now. Carlos (Hyde)
and Jordan Hall have some speed, but so much of what we can do is about
"Until we get our hands on Braxton and really get a feel for what he
can do, I can’t really evaluate. I’ve watched him in practice some, but
some of those other things – release, pocket presence, things like that
– I want to evaluate myself."
The thing that many fans have been concerned about is Meyer's penchant
for reliance upon scatbacks, and how that might not be the best fit for
the Big Ten.
It wasn't even necessarily the best fit for the SEC either, but Meyer
made it work by putting pressure in the proper places. That's something
that he's looking to do again in Columbus.
"We have some big backs and I haven’t had one of those in a while," he said.
"We would also like to have a speed back. If you threaten the perimeter
of the defense, that opens up everything else. Now, how you do it is
dictated on your personnel."
For instance, Florida's personnel dictated that Tebow was their power
back. Would Ohio State's personnel dictate that perhaps Miller become
their speed back?
Questions like that will eventually be answered, but don't worry,
Meyer's desire to implement his own flourishes doesn't mean we will be
seeing an unrecognizable Buckeye offense. There will be characteristics
from both Meyer's past as well as Ohio State's, and whether there is
one workhorse or not will likely depend upon the personnel, just like
it did under Tressel and everyone else before him.
"The thing we have to remember is this is Ohio State," he said.
"You have to know where you are in terms of your environment and the
weather, so we have to be able to turn around and hand that ball off.
"That will have to be part of who we are, probably more than we have
ever done. Not that we have never done that. I mean, our big back at
Florida was a 240-pound quarterback, so we did that a little bit
differently. But we still need to be able to pound the football."
Rushing Totals for Meyer and Ohio State from 2001-2010:
2001 - BGSU 46th (166.09); OSU 29th (190.27)
2002 - BGSU 11th (219.08); OSU 31st (191.29)
2003 - Utah 48th (160.50); OSU 84th (126.08)
2004 - Utah 13th (236.08); OSU 70 (145.52)
2005 - Florida 56th (146.75) OSU 24th (196.67)
2006 - Florida 38th (160.00); OSU 26th (169.85)
2007 - Florida 23rd (200.15); OSU 28th (196.92)
2008 - Florida 10th (231.14); OSU 24th (192.46)
2009 - Florida 10th (221.79) OSU 18th (195.38)
2010 - Florida 44th (166.54); OSU 14th (220.08)
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