Ohio State’s depth chart at running back remains murky, by design.
Whether it will be one person who will fill Carlos Hyde’s large void, or whether it will be several, has not been settled.
With the start of Ohio State’s 2014 season more than five months away, there’s no rush to anoint a successor. But that doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of urgency among the Buckeyes’ running backs.
Far from it. The five in contention for the job — sophomores Ezekiel Elliott, Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball, senior Rod Smith and freshman Curtis Samuel — know that every moment is crucial in separating themselves from the pack. (Sophomore hybrid back Dontre Wilson is now listed as a wide receiver, although he will get carries out of the backfield.)
“It’s very competitive,” Ball said. “That’s what pushes us each day to get better. We’re ultimately trying to be the starter and get playing time, but we’re also making each other better at the same time.”
Elliott entered the spring as the front-runner after showing glimpses of his considerable potential as a true freshman last year. The Alton, Ill., native — he went to high school in nearby St. Louis — averaged 8.7 yards per carry in backup duty.
Elliott said he has added 20 pounds of muscle from his freshman year and now weighs 225. He has all the physical tools and now has the benefit of an offseason to master the playbook.
“I came in the fall with a blank mind, not really knowing much of the offense,” Elliott said. “Now I pretty much know the whole playbook like the back of my hand.”
Elliott’s knowledge of the offense might have been lacking last year, but his effort wasn’t.
“One thing about Ezekiel is that he walked through the door with an incredible work ethic, and that has sustained,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “Now it’s a matter of him taking his game to the next level, anticipating a little bit quicker, understanding the defense a little more. He still has a ways to go in his development, but he’s definitely on track.”
But coaches aren’t willing to list Elliott or any of the others atop the pecking order.
“No one has really separated themselves yet,” coach Urban Meyer said.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said after Tuesday’s practice that Elliott has been inconsistent.
“He still plays like a freshman, unfortunately, at times,” he said. “Rod made a nice surge today, just based on what I felt out there. The other two guys — Bri’onte and Warren — are pushing. They can still see there’s a battle there, and if they keep busting their tail, they can work their way into the rotation.”
Smith has been an enigma during his Ohio State career. He has tantalized with his potential for years but has never been able to seize the job. Fumbles and immaturity have been issues. Smith understands that it’s now or never.
“It has been discouraging, but at the same time, it’s not like I haven’t made any plays,” Smith said. “I haven’t been the starter, but you have to think about who has been here since I’ve been here. You’ve had Boom (Herron) and Carlos and Jordan (Hall).
“There have been a lot of people I’ve been here with that were ahead of me. My senior year — I’m going to help the young guys out — but I feel it’s my time. But as long as the running backs produce, I’m happy.”
Smith is taking the responsibility of being a senior seriously, Drayton said, telling the underclassmen not to make the mistakes that he has made. On the field, Drayton senses that Smith is finally learning to use his 6-foot-3, 231-pound frame to his advantage.
“He was Bambi-ish for his first three years of college football,” Drayton said. “Now he’s starting to grow into that body and learn how to use it. He is really on the right track. I’m excited for Rod.”
Dunn, Ball and Samuel have more time on their side, but they also are eager to make their mark. Dunn was part of Meyer’s first recruiting class. He was redshirted last year when it became apparent that he wouldn’t see significant playing time.
Ball played well in limited action last year and has a reputation as a smart, dependable player. Samuel has big-play potential.
“He might be the most explosive out of all of us,” Elliott said.
But Samuel, an early enrollee, was slowed early by a hamstring injury and still is in the he-doesn’t-know-what-he-doesn’t-know phase, Drayton said.
Hyde ran for 1,521 yards last year, averaging 7.3 per carry, to become Meyer’s first 1,000-yard running back. Whether it’s with one player leading the way or a committee approach, Drayton and the running backs believe they can be as productive.
“I’m extremely confident that we’re going to get to where we need to be,” Drayton said. “They have a culture that’s being created in that room. They’re trying to be the hardest-working unit on the (team). If they keep that mindset and that unselfishness in their back pocket somewhere, we’re definitely going to exceed our goals.”