There may be life after Ezekiel Elliott for Ohio State as it chases Big Ten and national championships.
But how long will it take the Buckeyes to replace the collective talents of Elliott, perhaps the greatest combination of rusher/receiver/blocker in school history?
As such, don’t expect any Ohio State tailback to fully replicate the two-year greatness of Elliott — who’s now a rookie with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys after being selected No. 4 overall — who collected 3,699 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns in 2014 and 2015.
Other highlights include:
- Back-to-back seasons of 1,800-plus rushing yards.
- Twenty-one games of 100-plus rushing yards, including 15 straight over parts of 2014 and ’15.
- Five 200-yard rushing efforts during that span.
- Twelve outings of multiple touchdowns.
- Three separate Big Ten titles from the 2015 campaign — conference crowns for rushing yards (1,821), rushing touchdowns (23) and yards from scrimmage (2,027).
All this begs the question: Who dares to succeed Elliott as Ohio State’s next great workhorse back?
Well, head coach Urban Meyer hasn’t been a fountain of information when discussing this matter, but the prevailing odds have redshirt freshman Mike Weber tabbed as the early front-runner for starting reps.
And should this occur, it’ll be interesting to see if Weber can succeed in this high-pressure environment, knowing the Elliott comparisons might come early and often.
Here is our “Buy Or Sell” look at Weber’s upcoming campaign, relative to his chances of breaking the 1,100-yard mark in 2016:
USING HISTORY AS OUR GUIDE
Citing the last seven seasons from 2009 to 2015, Ohio State’s best tailbacks (Zeke Elliott, Carlos Hyde, ‘Boom’ Herron, Brandon Saine) posted supreme averages of 1,251 yards rushing. For good measure, they averaged 107 yards rushing per game.
During this period, the four backs averaged 5.9 yards per carry when leading the Buckeyes in rushing among tailbacks.
It’s also worth noting that Ohio State had prolific rushers at quarterback – Terrelle Pryor, Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett – throughout the seven-year survey, bolstering the overall rushing numbers but also taking away carries from the tailbacks.
This pattern should repeat in 2016, with junior J.T. Barrett (5,446 career yards, 67 total TDs) running the show at quarterback.
Complicating matters a bit, it’s also hard to know much stiff competition Weber will incur among this year’s lot of Ohio State tailbacks, namely Antonio Williams (4-star recruit from the Class of 2016) and Curtis Samuel (7.8 yards per carry, 3 TDs in limited action last season). As such, what would be a workable number of touches for a primary back in a prodigious offense?
Here’s a good guess at the magic number: When serving as the primary rushers, Elliott (2014-15) and Hyde (2012-13) averaged 239 carries per season.
THE FRESHMAN COMP
Eight great OSU tailbacks from the last 30 years — Tim Spencer (1979), Keith Byars (1982), Carlos Snow (1987), Eddie George (1992), Pepe Pearson (1994), Michael Wiley (1996), Antonio Pittman (2004), the aforementioned Elliott (2013) — never cleared 300 rushing yards as freshmen.
And while Raymont Harris (519 rushing yards, 9 TDs in 1990) and Beanie Wells (576 rushing yards, 7 TDs in 2006) were certainly productive as college newbies, only one Ohio State back — at least in the modern era — represents the essence of freshman dominance, and that was Maurice Clarett.
For his lone season in Columbus, Clarett took the college world by storm, rushing for 1,237 yards and amassing 18 touchdowns — including two scores in Ohio State’s double-overtime upset of Miami in the 2002 BCS National Championship Game.
Instead of operating in a 50/50 carries split with the more experienced Lydell Ross, Clarett immediately became the alpha dog of the OSU attack, rolling for 175 yards and three rushing touchdowns in the opener, a home rout of Texas Tech, and accounting for 15 total TDs in the first six games. In 2002, Clarett notched 222 carries … at a superb rate of 5.6 yards per rush.
From every angle, Clarett easily had the most amazing campaign of any Ohio State freshman in history. He even had a secondary role in the Buckeyes’ successful pursuit of the national championship, executing a strip-fumble/recovery on Miami safety Sean Taylor during a crucial juncture of the title game.
When perusing Ohio State’s schedule, five opponents — Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern — ranked in the top 25 for rushing defense last season; and nine of the impending foes ranked in the top 80 for rushing defense.
As such, it’s hard to envision many 150-yard outings from the Buckeyes’ primary back, regardless of who gets the starting nod.
However, Tulsa (117th against the run), Rutgers (84th) and Indiana (95th) all appear on the early part of Ohio State’s docket, meaning that Weber would have a chance to gather plenty of steam entering the meat of the OSU schedule.
For Weber to match Clarett’s circa-2002 figure of 222 carries, he’ll need to average 15.9 carries over a 14-game season (Big Ten title appearance, plus bowl) or 14.8 rushes over a 15-game campaign (trip to the College Football Playoff finals).
If healthy, both tallies are doable.
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say Weber ends up with 237 carries for the full year. To reach 1,000 yards, the freshman would only need to average 4.2 yards per rush; and to hit the 1,100-yard mark, it’s still a manageable 4.6 yards per carry.
This one’s going to be close … but we like the kid’s chances. In fact, we’re bullish on Weber succeeding in this worthy challenge.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.