When JK Dobbins left Ohio State following his junior season, he took with him 4,459 career rushing yards.
That kind of production loss is going to be a hit for any team, but the Buckeyes are working hard to make sure the 2020 running backs are ready to pick up where he left off.
That process got a sizable boost on Sunday when Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon announced his transfer to Ohio State. Sermon, who is a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility, has 2,076 career rushing yards to his credit.
His season was cut short last year due to a suspected ACL tear in November. He rushed for just 385 yards on 54 attempts (7.1 ypc) over 10 games, but 45 of those carries came in the first five games. After rushing for 91, 56, 51, 76, and 71 yards in Oklahoma’s first five games, he didn’t touch the ball at all in game six against Texas.
Over the next three games following the Red River Shootout, Sermon carried the ball nine times for 40 yards before suffering his knee injury. Even before the injury, it seemed like OU head coach Lincoln Riley had decided to move on from Sermon. Some fans have spoken of their frustration in watching Sermon, who is at times lightning and thunder wrapped up in one, and other times too hesitant for their liking.
It’s clear that Sermon’s production was adversely impacted by the presence of quarterback Jalen Hurts, who led the Sooners with 233 carries last season. That was 93 more than quarterback Kyler Murray the year before. With Murray at the helm, Sermon rushed for 947 yards and had four 100-yard games — including a 26-carry, 206-yard performance in a 51-46 shootout win at Texas Tech.
Perhaps with a quarterback who runs the ball about as much as Murray, Sermon could get back to his old ways.
“Hmm,” you think to yourself, “I wonder how many times Justin Fields ran the ball last year compared to Kyler Murray’s 140 attempts in 2018?”
The answer? Three fewer times.
Justin Fields isn’t going to keep the ball from his running backs. He’s going to put them in play and let them do what they’re best at.
But don’t expect Trey Sermon to just walk in and be handed the starting job. He should be recovered from his injury in time for fall camp — whenever that might be. But so will Marcus Crowley. Master Teague may be as well. And then there’s Steele Chambers who has been totally healthy and was primed for a breakout spring. Let’s also not forget fifth-year senior Demario McCall, who has seen his share of injuries but is looking to close things out with a bang.
Overall it’s a very deep group, but one that has its more-than-fair-share of injuries to think about. Marcus Crowley is also coming off of an ACL tear, which happened the same day as Sermon’s injury. Teague suffered an Achilles injury the first week of spring ball (also now known as “the last week of spring ball”).
There will also be a heightened concern for injuries once the season resumes because of lack of normal training procedures during the offseason.
When the Buckeyes do take the field this year, they may have lost 4,459 rushing yards from JK Dobbins, but they will be “returning” 3,790 in Trey Sermon, Master Teague, Demario McCall, Marcus Crowley, and Steele Chambers. True freshman Miyan Williams will be enrolled as well.
All told, the Buckeyes will have more legitimate running back options this season than they’ve had in a very, very long time. And the great thing for everyone is that the job will be wide open. Competition will bring out everyone’s best self. Head coach Ryan Day and running backs coach Tony Alford will be hoping for a very tough decision when it comes to finding a starter.
In the end, they will probably downplay that title because one running back may not be getting the bulk of the carries.
Sermon spent his Oklahoma career as part of a rotation, so he’s used to that. Other running backs have seen the pluses that come from it as well. The Buckeyes, however, struggled with it in 2018 — or at least Dobbins did.
As Oklahoma and Alabama and others have shown, running back-by-committee works just fine, provided your running backs aren’t trying to hit a home run on every carry, as Dobbins did in 2018.
With Fields’ threat to run, an offensive line designed to punish, and as spread out as defenses are going to be against this Ohio State passing offense, a committee approach should give everyone a chance to do damage.
Finding enough carries for a third or fourth running back, however, is always going to be difficult. But as Alford said a couple of years ago, it’s not his job to keep his players happy — it’s their job to keep him happy.
There is going to be an entertaining battle to watch, but in the end, it should provide a number of winners.