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Replacing the Running Back Production Should Priority No. 1 for Ohio State
By Patrick Murphy
Bri'onte Dunn brings the experience to the 2016 OSU backfield
Photo by Dan Harker
 

COLUMBUS – The most important position in an Urban Meyer offense is typically the quarterback, but in recent years Ohio State’s running backs have been vital to success.

Whether it’s been Carlos Hyde rushing for 168 yards and three touchdowns in a tight game with Northwestern or Ezekiel Elliott literally carrying the Buckeyes to a national championship, when the chips are down, the Scarlet and Gray give the ball to their back and let him carry the load.

That was easy to do with players like Hyde and Elliott, but OSU has a combined 48 carries for 287 yards and three touchdowns returning at tailback in 2016.

Elliott is likely to be a first-round NFL Draft selection, so replacing his 3,961 career yards and 43 touchdowns was never going to be easy, but replicating the production of the recent backs will be a necessity moving forward.

Right now, I think we have to come back in this offseason, this spring, ready to go to work and keep evaluating guys and working,” running backs coach Tony Alford recently said of his group for next year. “I think they’ve had a great role model in how to go about their business. Right now there’s no preconceived ‘This guy’s ahead of anyone else.’ We’re just going to go work every day and see how it all comes out.”

The most experience of the returning players is Bri’onte Dunn. The redshirt senior-to-be has spent four years in Columbus already but has little to show for it. What Dunn does have is all of the returning production mentioned above, and he is the only player who has participated in a collegiate game.

While Dunn has the experience, he also has never been able to establish himself enough to get consistent carries. He was the backup to Elliott in 2015, but that had more to do with an injury to freshman Mike Weber than what he showed in the fall.

Weber is young but talented
Photo by Dan Harker

Weber came to Columbus from Cass Tech in Detroit, Michigan. Despite initial reports that the running back was unhappy at Ohio State, Weber stole the show early in Fall Camp and was the second freshman to have his black stripe removed, signifying how quickly he was adjusting to college life.

Unfortunately, a meniscus tear kept him out of the rotation for the rest of camp and by the time he was 100 percent, it would have been pointless to try and get him out on the field, and so he was redshirted.

While Dunn remained the backup throughout 2015, a healthy Weber received even more positive reviews during bowl practices where starters took fewer reps in order to heal their bodies before the Fiesta Bowl.

These will be the two main backs competing for the starting role, but what might be the deciding factor is who can better perform when the ball is not in his hands.

Hyde and Elliott were both good blockers, and Elliott became famous for his lead blocking over the last two seasons. With a mobile quarterback like J.T. Barrett, this will be even more important heading into 2016.

“That’s like the number one thing,” Dunn said early in the fall. “Basically whoever blocks the best is going to be on the field. You see Zeke, he’s really good at blocking and I got way better at blocking, so that’s the biggest thing everybody’s got to work on.”

While the Buckeyes would love to have one guy establish himself as the lead back as has been the case the last several seasons, Alford said he wouldn’t be opposed to a running back by committee approach.

I don’t know. That will kind of play itself out,” he said when asked about this possibility.

“That will all play itself out. If it’s by committee, then that’s what it will be, but as we move forward those things will play themselves out.

The door was left open for H-backs Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson, both of whom came to Ohio State as running backs, to see more time in the backfield as well.

OSU also has two incoming running backs in the 2016 recruiting class. Four-star prospect Antonio Williams out of North Carolina is enrolling early, which will help his chances of getting involved in this competition to replace Elliott. Demario McCall, out of North Ridgeville, Ohio, is another four-star prospect, though he projects more at H-back. At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he will likely need time with strength coach Mickey Marotti before he sees the field for the Buckeyes.

No matter who earns the starting spot, or if it is multiple players, Ohio State will need to continue the running back success that has been so important over the last few seasons.

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