Spring Position Battles to Watch: Running Back
By Brandon Castel
Photo by Jim Davidson
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There may not be an open battle for the starting tailback job this spring, but Ohio State assistant Stan Drayton will make sure to ratchet up the competition in his running back room.
Carlos Hyde returns for his senior season with the Buckeyes, but there are plenty of options behind him for Drayton and head coach Urban Meyer.
Here’s a look at how the battle for the No. 2 tailback spot could look this spring.
No. 2 TAILBACK
Shoes to Fill: None
The Buckeyes return all three of their top tailbacks from a year ago, plus fifth-year senior Jordan Hall, who missed mist of last season with foot and knee injuries. Hall was their third-leading rusher behind Braxton Miller and Hyde last season, but Urban Meyer is planning to move him out to the hybrid No. 3 position.
Hall earned a medical redshirt for last season, when he played in only three games as a senior captain. While Hall will probably not get many reps as a tailback in the spring, the Buckeyes also add redshirt freshman Warren Ball to the mix.
Ball was a 4-star prospect out of Columbus DeSales who missed all of last season with a foot injury.
Photo by Jim Davidson
The Favorite: Rod Smith (6-3, 228, Jr.)
It seems like we say this just about every spring, but this should be a make or break offseason for Rod Smith. He probably isn’t going to catch Carlos Hyde for that No. 1 running back spot – not after Hyde ran for 970 yards in basically nine games last year – but now is the time for Smith to secure that spot as the No. 2 back at Ohio State.
He had that role last spring, lost it in the fall and regained it during the season. The problem for Smith now is that if he loses it again, he may never get it back. Bri’onte Dunn is a year older and should be more capable of contributing as a sophomore.
Warren Ball is healthy and the Buckeyes will add their “tailback of the future” this summer in Ezekiel Elliott out of St. Louis. All of that puts pressure of Smith to finally emerge as the guy everyone has been waiting to see.
The talent is undeniable. His 33-yard touchdown run against Nebraska was probably the single best offensive play of the entire 2012 season that didn’t involve Braxton Miller. He showed speed, he showed power and he showed vision we hadn’t seen before.
Smith finished his sophomore season with 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he still put the ball on the ground a few times. Eddie George said the fumbles early in his career have come to define his character and determination. We will find out if the same can be true for Smith.
The Challenger: Bri’onte Dunn (6-1, 210, So.)
Photo by Jim Davidson
According to Meyer, Dunn had a “wrong way” problem last season as a freshman. That means he tended to go the opposite of the way the play was designed to run, which might explain why he never really challenged Rod Smith for that No. 2 tailback role as a freshman.
It was a role he actually earned during the offseason, but eventually the OSU staff went back to Smith to see what he could give them. Dunn still managed to average 5.3 yards per carry as a freshman, but he only had 25 of them on the year.
His best game of the year came in week 10 against Illinois. That’s when Dunn carried the ball a career-high 13 times for 73 yards and a touchdown. One thing he will have to work on is his explosiveness. Dunn didn’t have a run over more than 13 yards as a rookie, but he should be better in year two.
The Darkhorse: Warren Ball (6-1, 215, rFr.)
Ball probably would not have played much as a freshman last season even if he was healthy enough to compete for playing time in practice. There were a few times throughout the season when it looked like they could have used another back.
Both Hyde and Hall were banged up at different times and there were a few moments where the Buckeyes had to get fullback Zach Boren involved in the running game as a ball-carrier. Boren would later move to linebacker – what a tremendous senior season he had – and Ball would miss his entire rookie season with a mid-foot sprain.
He underwent surgery last September, which means he will be ready to go for spring practice. After missing a whole year, Ball is certainly behind classmate Bri’onte Dunn at this point but don’t completely count him out just yet.
Meyer said he presents an “intriguing option” at 6-1, 215 pounds. Ball rushed for 1,232 yards and 29 touchdowns as a DeSales senior and was named first-team Division III all-state by the Associated Press.
He was rated as a top-15 running back in class of 2012 by both Rivals and Scout.com.
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