COLUMBUS, Ohio — Before heading to their respective locker rooms following the Oct. 2 meeting between their two teams, Ezekiel Elliott and Carlos Hyde made sure to find one another.
Elliott’s Cowboys had just beaten Hyde’s 49ers, 24-17, but the two former Ohio State running backs had previously made plans, regardless of the outcome of the game. Meeting near midfield, Hyde and his backup on the Buckeyes’ 2013 depth chart exchanged jerseys, before posing for a photo that would soon become widespread on social media.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) October 2, 2016
Such pictures of former college teammates have become commonplace in the NFL, but this appeared to be the first of its kind when it came specifically to Ohio State running backs. Maybe it would have made sense if it were two alums from Alabama or the No. 2 Buckeyes’ upcoming opponent, No. 8 Wisconsin. But you probably have to go back to Eddie George and Robert Smith in the 1990s to find a time when Ohio State could claim two players as prominent as Hyde and Elliott at the position at the pro level.
For its part, the Buckeyes’ social media staff hasn’t been shy about reminding recruits where Elliott and Hyde spent their college careers, either. Posts touting the NFL accomplishments of Ohio State’s past two starting running backs have become an almost daily occurrence on the Buckeyes’ official Instagram and Twitter accounts.
“If you follow all that Twitter stuff, it means a lot,” Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer said of his program’s promotional use for its former players on Monday. “We beat that to death, and we’re very proud of the old boys.”
Ohio State’s history at the running back position has long been well documented. From Howard Cassady’s Heisman season in 1955 to Archie Griffin’s starring role — and two Heismans — in the ’70s, George’s emergence in the ’90s to prized prospects such as Maurice Clarett and Chris “Beanie” Wells in the 2000s, there’s been no shortage of star running backs to have played in the Buckeyes’ backfields
But during the social-media boom in the early years of this decade, Ohio State’s storied tradition of talented tailbacks was in a lull. Daniel “Boom” Herron and Brandon Saine were fine enough as players, but neither did much in terms of moving the needle for targets on the recruiting trail.
Meanwhile at Alabama, Mark Ingram was winning the Heisman and the success of Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and Derrick Henry wasn’t far behind. In Madison, the Badgers established themselves as arguably college football’s pre-eminent program when it came to the running back position, thanks to the continuity built by future pro players like John Clay, James White, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon.
“I don’t know where the heck they keep getting these guys,” Meyer said as the Buckeyes prepared to battle the Badgers in 2013.
At the time, Meyer was fighting an uphill battle — certainly in terms of perception — when it came to his own running backs. Not only was he in his second season in charge of an Ohio State program that could lay claim to just one 1,000-yard running back in the previous four seasons, but he himself never had a 1,000-yard running back in his 11 seasons as a head coach to that point.
“That hasn’t come up like it used to,” Meyer said on Tuesday. “That hasn’t come up in several years.”
It started with Hyde’s breakthrough season in 2012, in which he nearly gave Meyer his first 1,000-yard running back — 970 yards and 16 touchdowns despite only appearing in 10 games. The future second-round pick of the 49ers would give Meyer first 1,000-yard running back the following season, totaling 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground in 11 games in 2013.
A season later, Elliott set the standard for running backs in OSU’s spread attack, rushing for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns throughout the Buckeyes’ season-long run to the College Football Playoff championship. In 2015, Elliott solidified his status as one of college football’s top players, rushing for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns before being selected by the Cowboys with the fourth overall pick of this year’s NFL draft — the highest a running back had been picked since Richardson went third overall 2012.
“There’s a great history here,” Meyer said of the Buckeyes’ lineage of running backs. “We’ve added to it.”
They’re still adding.
Five games into the 2016 campaign, the Buckeyes backfield has a very realistic shot at not one, but two 1,000-yard backs. Between freshman Mike Weber (566 yards, 4 touchdowns) and H-back Curtis Samuel (410 yards, 3 TDs), the Ohio State rushing offense has hardly missed a beat in the absence of Elliott, who currently leads the NFL with 546 yards rushing despite being a rookie.
Elliott’s 5 rushing scores, however, don’t lead the league — a pair of running backs have 6, Hyde being one of them.
“Mike Weber’s really done a good job,” Meyer said. “I’m pleased with where we’re at. I’m not surprised because we have really good players that believe in what we’re doing.”
With the success his running backs have achieved both in the past and the present, the future is bright for the position, as well. In just limited playing time, true freshman Demario McCall has shown plenty of promise (144 yards on 20 carries — a whopping 7.2 yards per carry) and Ohio State remains in the mix for several of the top running backs in the 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes, including 4-star 2018 commit Brian Snead.
“I chose Ohio State because it’s a really great program,” Weber, a former 4-star prospect who arrived at Ohio State in 2015 in the midst of Elliott’s success, said last week. “Coach Meyer and his staff do a good job of putting guys in the NFL and developing guys . . . it’s kind of working out now.”
The Buckeyes’ pitch to players like Weber continues to write itself.
It does so on Saturdays. It does so on Sundays. And it all shows up on social media.
“We’re certainly right in the middle with every top running back,” Meyer said of his recruiting efforts. “That’s kind of one of the positions in college football, is to play tailback at Ohio State.”