They say the waiting is the hardest part, but as Ohio State’s Demario McCall found out this past season, fighting your way into a loaded lineup is even harder.
As an H-back with a tailback upbringing, McCall found himself behind JK Dobbins and Mike Weber at running back and Parris Campbell and KJ Hill at H-back.
As talented as McCall is, the players in front of him were hardly slouches. In just three years of play, Weber rushed for 2,676 yards and moved past Raymont Harris to become OSU’s No. 13 all-time leading rusher. Dobbins, meanwhile, became the first Buckeye to ever rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman and a sophomore.
At H-back, Campbell set an OSU record this past season with 90 receptions, becoming the first Buckeye with 1,000 yards receiving since Michael Jenkins in 2002. Hill, with even a below-average season in 2019 will become Ohio State’s all-time leading receiver.
So McCall’s lack of touches in 2018 weren’t entirely his fault, but towards the end of the season he did begin to get more involved.
Over a six-game stretch through Big Ten play, McCall touched the ball just once — a 12-yard reception against Nebraska. Over the final three conference games (including the Championship Game), McCall was much more involved. He finished on a positive note, with 90 all-purpose yards against Maryland, 66 against Michigan, and 51 against Northwestern.
His 42-yard kickoff return against Maryland with 1:32 remaining gave the Buckeyes just 50 yards to go for the game-tying touchdown.
He closed well, but McCall’s 2018 season could have been remembered much differently had his fumbled kickoff late in the first half against Michigan not become merely a footnote in Ohio State’s 62-39 shaming of the Wolverines.
Michigan turned that muff into a touchdown, which made the score 21-19 Ohio State and seemingly stripped OSU of the momentum.
McCall successfully fair caught the next kickoff and three plays later, quarterback Dwayne Haskins hit McCall on a wheel route for a 33-yard gain down to Michigan’s 3-yard line. The Buckeyes would eventually kick a field goal to make it 24-19 and regain some of the momentum they had lost.
No need. This was designed for McCall last year. (Three plays after he fumbled the KO return.) pic.twitter.com/wcsLGoEJPg
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) January 18, 2019
When McCall thinks of that fumbled kickoff now, he focuses on the positives, which is probably why he was able to respond so quickly with a big play on the next drive.
“Once I dropped it, it was heartbreaking and I felt that one,” he said recently. “Once I saw that it was recovered, I was like, ‘Oh God.’ When I was running back to the sideline, I had my eyes on one person. It was Isaiah Prince. And the first thing he told me was, ‘Don’t get down on yourself. Pick your head up. You’re going to win this game for us. Bounce back.’
“Once I looked at him and he said that to me, then I looked to my right and saw Terry McLaurin, and I looked in his eyes, he was telling me, ‘Bounce back. You’re going to win this game for us. Shake it off.’ And once I did that, it was gone. It was like, ‘Alright, come on, let’s go. Let’s go play ball.’”
McCall was almost the forgotten man this past season, but he stepped up late in the season. He worked and waited his turn, and when he was finally called upon, he delivered.
How did he do it?
“Day by day,” he said. “Practice. Just keep showing [the coaches] that I’m capable of doing the stuff that I think I can do. Earning their trust and keep busting my butt at practice and keep going hard, which is what we all do. Just earn their trust and do what I’ve got to do.”
He also had the confidence from his teammates, as evidenced by the sideline talks after his fumble against Michigan.
“They were counting on me and they believed in me, and I appreciate those guys for having my back,” he said.
With Parris Campbell and Mike Weber now off to the NFL, there is going to be a larger role available for McCall. The work is far from done, of course, but his momentum is headed in a positive direction.
What could he bring to the Ohio State offense in 2019?
“I’d say speed,” he said. “And me just by being an athlete, I can do multiple stuff, running back, receiver, returner, just being an athlete.”
And if the opposing defense attempts to put a linebacker on him as Michigan did?
“To be honest, I don’t care, I don’t think a linebacker can run with me,” he said smiling.
Being a running back in high school to now floating between worlds as a slot receiver and tailback in college, learning the intricacies of receiver has been a long process for McCall. Having a full year under new receivers coach Brian Hartline has also helped.
“Demario McCall had a great bowl prep,” Hartline said. “It will be interesting to see where does he fit for the offense. I think he’s obviously going to be a guy that can do a lot of things for us. I’m really excited for his career to take shape with the opportunity he’s going to have next year.”
Hartline isn’t the only one excited to see what McCall can do next season. He has had Buckeye fans waiting to see him in a larger role since the day he arrived. McCall has heard and seen the support, and he plans on making this the year when his fans will be rewarded for their patience.
“I love my fans. The fans love me,” he said. “How do I want to say it, will the fans see what they want to see next year? Next year should be my year and I’ll definitely be the guy that you all want me to be.”