Spring Forecast: Running Back
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — This will be the deepest group of ball carriers that Ohio State has had in over 20 years, and that's not even including the guy who rushed for 1,271 yards last season.
In 1992, the Buckeyes could hand the ball to Robert Smith, Raymont Harris, Jeff Cothran, Butler By'not'e or Eddie George, all of whom spent a combined 28 years in the NFL.
That stable of running backs could be topped this year, even if none of them actually end up leading the team in rushing.
Who's Coming Back?
In a word, everybody. Ohio State rushed for 2,907 yards last season, and they return 2,868 of those yards. The only loss is fullback Zach Boren, and he stopped being a fullback after six games last season.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Carlos Hyde and his 970 yards rushing return. He put the Buckeyes on his back during Big Ten play, leading Ohio State to an 8-0 conference mark.
Rod Smith is back as well. He backed up Hyde fairly well last year, rushing for 215 yards and leading to a team-best 6.7 yards per carry among the running backs. Fumbles were an issue last year, however.
Bri'onte Dunn, as a true freshman, was actually ahead of Smith on the depth chart early in the season. He finished with 133 yards rushing, but only carried the ball in three games.
Warren Ball also returns, following a redshirt during his freshman season. He had surgery on his foot late in August, which cost him the entire season. He was impressive in early practices, but he is still looking for the first playing time of his career.
Jordan Hall is back as well, except he will probably be in a different role this time around. He finished third on the team in rushing last year, with 218 yards. He is expected to move to H-back, which will see him roaming all over the field and getting the ball in a variety of ways.
Expectations Heading Into Spring
The expectation is for Hyde to continuing leaving no doubt that he is "the man" when it comes to the Ohio State running backs. He will be pushed this spring by some hungry young fellas, and he needs to push back.
This is his "contract" year, so he is also playing for draft position, which could set him up for the rest of his life. Smith, Dunn and Ball will all be competing for the backup job, and they will all be expected to make this a tough decision.
Essentially, everybody will need to be better than they were last year, Hyde included. Each of the four tailbacks who will be participating in the spring need to show that they can be the starter if called upon.
This is Ohio State, every scholarship running back on the roster should be capable of a 1,000-yard season, even if they'll never actually get enough carries to make it happen.
Best Case Scenario
The best case scenario for the Buckeyes is that Hyde looks even better, and the other three amigos make Urban Meyer and Stan Drayton pull their hair out trying to figure out how to get playing time for everybody.
Ideally, there won't be any drop off between the backups, and the coaches can make them interchangeable. They are all bigger backs with good shake, which will help the coaches. But because they are all similar, it will be easier for one to fall to the back of the line, unless he provides something that the others don't.
Also, each of Smith, Dunn and Ball have had issues with ball security. If we're talking about a truly best case scenario, then it would also involve them never putting the ball on the ground during the spring.
One to Watch For
The most intriguing tailback to watch this spring will be Warren Ball. If he can pick up where he left off last summer he will make the spring an interesting showcase of some very talented young runners.
He might have a few more moves than his competitors, but he also possesses the same ability to lower the shoulder that they do. Ball has tremendous balance, and can stay low despite being over six-feet tall. It will be interesting to see how he looks after missing all of 2012.
Trending Up or Down
As a group, these tailbacks are all trending up right now. What might be trending down, however, is a little bit of happiness among them. There just won't be enough carries to keep them all happy, especially with Braxton Miller taking 15 of them per game.
Let's also not forget that the Buckeyes will be throwing the ball quite a bit more this season, which will leave even fewer carries to be had.
However, if there is one thing that Meyer and Tom Herman will focus on, it will be getting the ball to the playmakers who deserve it. If a running back shows that he is a producer, then his coaches will find a way or three to get him the ball.
The offense's job is to score, and Meyer will be looking for the players who can make that happen. They will also be shooting for more snaps per game as well, which will help alleviate some of that potential unhappiness.
While this is a very deep group heading into the spring, they are still pretty raw. Smith and Dunn combined for just 57 carries last season, which was an average three-week stretch for Hyde.
It might be presumptive to label this eventual group of ball carriers the school's best since 1992, but the potential is certainly there for it to happen. Especially when you consider the fact that defenses are going to have to be even more worried about Braxton Miller than they were last year.
The potential for this running game is truly unlimited, but for that potential to be reached, it will be up to the tailbacks to perform the way that their coaches believe they can. Inexperience only works as an excuse until somebody passes you by. After that, you're playing catch up.
If each of the running backs lives up to their billing, then this could truly be a dominating offense in 2013. The spring will give us a pretty good idea of whether or not that's actually going to happen.
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