Ohio State Spring Recap: Running Backs to the Future

Ohio State Running Back Demario McCall Carries the Ball During the Buckeyes' 2017 Spring Game

There has been a lot of talk about the need to improve the Ohio State passing game, and with good reason. Let’s not forget, however, that the Buckeyes rushed for just 88 yards in a playoff game last year. The running game needs to rebound almost as much as the passing game. Based on what we saw this spring, it looks like both will take a step forward.

Depth Chart

25 Mike Weber, rSo (5-10 212)
30 Demario McCall (5-9 195)
2 J.K. Dobbins, Fr (5-10 208) OR
26 Antonio Williams, Soph (5-11 210)

Sophomore Antonio Williams missed some of the spring dealing with a hamstring issue. While he was out, freshman J.K. Dobbins was able to impress enough to move past him on the depth chart. In fact, Dobbins was impressive enough to push sophomore Demario McCall. If there’s any bad news here, it’s that the gap between Mike Weber and everyone else is pretty large right now.

“He has (developed as a leader). He certainly has in our room, and that’s one of the things that he and I have talked about numerous times. He has certainly done that. I don’t know if you caught it today, but when Mike’s not in and Demario or Antonio comes in, his job is to make sure that J.K. Dobbins is standing right on his hip, in his hip pocket. J.K. — and I’ve told him very clearly, ‘listen to him.’ You’re talking about a guy who’s done it and done it at a really high level and he’s done it at a pretty good rate of speed. Can Mike be better? Absolutely he can be better and he will get better as we move along, but J.K. can learn from him by just standing with him, the same way that Mike learned by standing next to Zeke.” — Tony Alford on Mike Weber growing as a leader.

The good news here is that I think all four of these guys could be asked to carry the ball next year while the game is still in doubt. That hasn’t really been the case over the previous two seasons. In fact, over those two seasons, the Buckeyes only had one running back they could rely on. Of course, that number was halved when Curtis Samuel was moved to H-back, but those issues should be alleviated this year with this group.

Doteable (Which youngster should be doted on?)
Well before his first start, I said that Ezekiel Elliott could be the perfect running back for Urban Meyer’s offense. I get that same feeling from J.K. Dobbins. I’m not comparing Dobbins to Elliott, but I am saying that Dobbins is flashing the same off-the-ball concentration that made Elliott so good. Tony Alford said this spring that he was impressed with the way Dobbins attacked pass protection. It’s the stuff without the ball that will allow him to play when games are still in doubt, and he did a solid job in that area all spring long. As far as his skills as a ball carrier, we have seen what Dobbins did in high school, and I fully expect those abilities to transfer to the college game.

Ezekiel Elliott didn’t earn First-Team All-B1G recognition until his second year as a starter. Obviously that happened because voting occurs before the postseason and Elliott’s 2014 postseason run wasn’t taken into account. Mike Weber was a Second-Team selection by the coaches last year and should show up on plenty of preseason First-Teams when the magazines start rolling out here in a couple of weeks. Weber’s improvement over the offseason was a constant refrain from the coaches this spring.

Based on their respective skill sets, you could see both Demario McCall and J.K. Dobbins floating around a bit. Personally, I’d love to see them together in the same backfield along with Mike Weber. Defenses won’t want them on the field, so why give them what they want? Find spots for them to make an impact.

Tony Alford has four high school All-Americans in his position room, so you can forgive him if he wants to gloat a bit.

Yeah, Tony Alford has four All-Americans in his room, but last year he had three and only one was ready to play. The year before he had four as well, and only one could be counted on. The Buckeyes need to have more than one viable running back this season and it’s up to Alford to make that happen. If he doesn’t, that’s three years in a row, which is not a good trend to be in the middle of.

Antonio Williams could be a guy to watch here because he’s got a little more size than J.K. Dobbins and Demario McCall. He could move up the depth chart based on his ability to run with power. He’s not a change-of-pace guy, though I wouldn’t put Dobbins in that class either. Williams didn’t get to show everything that he can do this spring, and he’s going to carry that hunger through the summer and into fall camp.

Demario McCall might be the best home-run hitter on this offense, so you shouldn’t be surprised to see him offer up a bat flip or two this season. We saw him make plays in the spring game, which is almost impossible for running backs to do. He did the most with his limited opportunities, which is the best way to ensure more of those opportunities come his way.

Last season, Mike Weber became the third Buckeye freshman to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season, joining Robert Smith and Maurice Clarett. This year, however, he will become the first-ever Buckeye sophomore to have already rushed for 1,000 yards in a season because neither Clarett or Smith played as sophomores. Am I the only one that finds this odd bit of trivia interesting?

Remember way back in 2012 when Carlos Hyde missed on a number of big hits because he wasn’t able to make the defenders in the second level miss? He played that season with a knee injury, which limited his make-em-miss abilities. The following season he was finally healthy and vowed early on that he would become a big-play threat. He followed through on that promise. In 2012, he had just eight carries of 20+ yards and zero carries of 30+ yards. Healthy in 2013, he had 12 carries of 20+, six carries of 30+, three carries of 40+, and two carries of 50+ yards, and everyone was happy. The rap on Mike Weber currently is that he needs to hit the big one more often, which is true. Even he said he was tripped up too easily on plays that could have gone the distance. He worked hard on improving his home-run ability, just as Hyde did prior to the 2013 season. However, if you look at his numbers, they’re actually much more in line with Hyde’s 2013 season than the 2012 season. Last year, Weber had 11 runs of 20+, four of 30+, three of 40+, and one carry of 50+. I expect more big plays this year, but I was pretty surprised at the numbers from last year based on all of the talk of the big hits lacking.

The health of this group is something to watch. Mike Weber had a knee injury as a freshman and a shoulder injury as a redshirt freshman. Antonio Williams tweaked his hamstring this spring. J.K. Dobbins missed his entire senior season in high school due to a broken bone in his right leg. Demario McCall is healthy, but he’s the smallest of the group, so you wonder how well he can hold up.