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2014 Ohio State Rewind: Running Backs
By James Vogel
This became a recurring theme by season's end for Ezekiel Elliott.
Photo by Dan Harker
 

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Heading into the 2014 season, Ohio State had big shoes to fill (literally) at running back and on the offensive line.

Gone to the NFL were running back Carlos Hyde and offensive linemen Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Jack Mewhort. The Buckeyes also lost the services of senior Marcus Hall at right guard, leaving five vacant spots from a record-breaking rushing offense that needed filling.

That number grew to six when two-time Big Ten Most Valuable Player Braxton Miller went down with another shoulder injury less than two weeks before the season opener against Navy. After a rough start to the season that included a loss to Virginia Tech Sept. 6, the Buckeye rushing attack was just as good, if not better, than it was the year before.

Expectations Coming Into The Season

Hyde was the first running back to play for head coach Urban Meyer that exceeded the 1,000-yard rushing plateau, churning out 1,527 yards in just 11 games as Ohio State’s leading rusher in 2013. His 15 rushing touchdowns also led the team even though he was suspended the first three games of the year for an incident at a Columbus bar over the summer.

Miller, Hyde and the powerful offensive line formed one of the best rushing attacks in school history. Altogether, the Buckeyes averaged 308.6 yards per game in 2013 and led the nation with ridiculous 6.8 yards per carry average.

With Hyde and Jordan Hall gone, it was thought the rushing attack would take a step backward in 2015. The coaching staff and players spoke about Miller having more weapons on the outside in the passing game than ever before and Meyer wanted to achieve more balance on offense with them. After Miller’s injury, however, questions of uncertainty arose around how the Buckeyes were going to move the ball with nearly a brand new offensive line, new running backs and J.T. Barrett at quarterback. Ezekiel Elliott had gotten some touches his freshman season (30 carries, 267 yards and five touchdowns) but that was mainly in mop up duties. Rod Smith, Warren Ball and Bri’onte Dunn were once again the subjects of high hopes during spring practice, but what exactly their production would be was still up in the air.

It looked as if it would be Elliott’s job to run with, which is exactly the way it turned out.

How The Season Played Out

After a slow start in the Navy and Virginia Tech games, Elliott took off.

He ran for 65 yards on only seven carries against Kent State in the 66-0 victory, but broke the 100-yard barrier nine times in Ohio State’s final 12 games.

Elliott made his mark when it mattered most, rushing for 696 yards on 76 carries and eight touchdowns in postseason victories against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. The offensive line made up of Taylor Decker, Pat Elflein, Billy Price, Jacoby Boren and Darryl Baldwin were a big reason behind Elliott’s success because the group seemed to get stronger as games grew older. Elliott’s 1,878 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns were better numbers than Hyde’s in 2013, but he played four more games because of the Hyde’s suspension and the Buckeyes advancing in the College Football Playoff.

Regardless how you look at it, Elliott was a monster on the ground and shredded some of the nation’s best defenses near the end of the season in Wisconsin and Alabama. He ripped through tackles left and right and it took more than one guy to bring him to the turf.

“He’s the most underrated back in America,” Meyer said after the national championship game. “He’s one of the best post-contact yard guys I’ve ever been around, and on top of that he’s a great human being.”

Elliott’s backup, freshman Curtis Samuel from Brooklyn, turned some heads early in the season with a quick burst of speed and ability to spin past tacklers. Meyer spoke highly of him at Big Ten Media Days and during fall camp, noting how he was a tireless worker and one of the team’s best practice players.

 

Samuel finished with 383 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, good for third best in both categories behind Elliott and Barrett.

Samuel’s playing time diminished late in the season both because of nagging leg injury and the dominant surge by Elliott, but he proved that he could produce if called upon. He wasn’t as good a blocker in the passing game as Elliott was, but improved in that area under the tutelage of running backs Stan Drayton.

Rod Smith was turning in a fine final season at Ohio State, scoring five total touchdowns and averaging better than four yards per carry in the team’s first seven games. He even had Meyer gloating about an 11-second block he held during a punt return in the Navy game.

That all came to a screeching halt when he reportedly failed another drug test and was kicked off the team in late October. It wasn’t the first such incident he’d had in his career, but Meyer determined it would be the last.

Dunn and Ball hardly got the carries during the season — just 18 combined — but contributed on special teams.

All told, Ohio State rushed for 3,967 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2014. The bulk of that was done by Elliott and Barrett, but there were plenty of players who chipped in along with them.

What We Should Expect in 2015

We continue to write it, but the depth and youth of Ohio State is staggering at all positions.

Running back is no exception, and Elliott returns to Ohio State for his junior season as an early favorite to win the 2015 Heisman Trophy.


 

Baldwin is the lone offensive lineman gone from the 2014 national title team but there are capable replacements available for line coach Ed Warinner.

The lone thing that could cause Elliott and company from taking a step back is the loss of Drayton, who left Ohio State Thursday to coach the Chicago Bears running backs. Meyer hasn’t announced his replacement yet, but is reported to be pursuing Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford.

Drayton was instrumental in developing the rushing attack in his three years under Meyer. He also played a huge role in the recruitment of highly touted running back Mike Weber, who signed with the Buckeyes Wednesday. Drayton’s abrupt jump to the NFL ruffled the feathers of Weber’s high school coach, however, who expressed how Weber is hurting and uncertain of his future. Whether or not he stays a Buckeye or tries to get Meyer to release him from his Letter of Intent is a developing story and big concerning Ohio State’s future depth at the position.

All that aside, as long as Elliott and the offensive line stays healthy, the Buckeye rushing attack is sure to be more than formidable again in 2015 regardless who plays quarterback.

Final Thoughts

Weber’s situation is interesting and could end with him never playing a down for the Scarlet and Gray. Elliott is likely gone after 2015, so Weber could be next in line to fight with Samuel to become his replacement.

Meyer’s spread offense requires more than one ballcarrier and plenty of skill guys to keep the defense guessing, but if he knows he has someone who can get yards on a consistent basis he’s going to continue feeding them the ball. That’s what happened late in Ohio State’s title run with Elliott, so smart money has to be on it happening again.

Previous Rewinds

Wide Receivers 

Tight Ends

Offensive Line

Defensive Backs

Linebackers

Defensive Tackles

Defensive Ends

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