In 2013, Ohio State’s offense – and by offense, I mean Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller – ran for 2,600 yards and 27 touchdowns.
In 2014, with Hyde in San Francisco carrying the ball for the 49ers and Braxton Miller sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury, sophomore Ezekiel Elliott took the reins of the offense and, coupled with redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, ran for 2,800 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Elliott’s heroic three-game burst through the Big Ten championship game, the Sugar Bowl against Alabama and the national championship game against Oregon made him a Heisman Trophy favorite for 2015.
He didn’t disappoint. In 2015, Elliott ran for 1,821 yards – Barrett ran for 682 in limited playing time – and the duo gave the Buckeyes’ running game 34 touchdowns.
Much like 2014, Ohio State enters the 2016 season uncertain of exactly what they have at tailback, but if there’s to be continued success in the win column, someone – namely redshirt freshman Mike Weber or junior H-back/wide receiver/running back Curtis Samuel – will have to fill some mighty big shoes that once lined up next to Barrett.
According to OSU coach Urban Meyer, it will be Weber, a 5-foot-10, 215-pound Detroit (Cass Tech) native, that gets the first crack to be the guy. He’ll enter the fall without a single college carry – he was sidelined by a torn meniscus throughout the early portion of 2015 that turned into a redshirt season – but he’s a running back at Ohio State and he’s expected to be the next man up, especially with the recent dismissal of fifth-year running back Bri’onte Dunn.
“I anticipate he’ll be the starting tailback,” Meyer said during Tuesday’s Big Ten Media Day’s session in Chicago. “But that’s why we have training camp. His issue is he has to stay healthy. I like where he’s at. I don’t like, I love where he’s at, as far as what kind of physical condition he’s in.”
If you want photographic proof of the kind of physical condition Weber is in, you need only look at a recent social media post he made.
Look what a year can make ??? pic.twitter.com/FM2qvJhQKk
— Mike Weber (@mikeweberjr) July 11, 2016
The commitment to better himself, with the help of the Buckeyes strength and conditioning coach Mick Marotti, isn’t lost on Meyer. He see the effort that Weber has put in and he’s seen the physical development translate into mental maturity thanks in part to the guys he’s been spending his time with on campus.
“I saw his little post, his before picture and after picture,” Meyer said. “A little fat kid that turned into a good looking running back. You can tell him I said that, too. He’s doing great. Pat Elflein and J.T. have kind of owned him. He’s become part of that little group. You have no choice with those two guys but to grow up.”
There may be no player on Ohio State’s roster that will be more personally impacted by Weber’s failure or success than Barrett.
The Buckeyes’ redshirt junior quarterback relies heavily on the running back next to him, not just in the running game but also in pass protection, an area that Elliott excelled. Barrett’s time with Weber this offseason has been vital in developing trust that can make or break a football team.
Experience or not, the Buckeyes captain says he’s not going to judge Weber on anything other than what he does on the field when he gets his shot.
“I feel like throughout camp and even our offseason program I’ve learned to put trust into Mike,” Barrett said Tuesday. “I think he definitely cares about our team as a whole and I know he cares about me by what he’s shown in the offseason. I’m not going to, I guess, try to take away from what he can do just because I’ve not seen him do it in a game.”
“I have to definitely give him the opportunity to prove himself, whether it be handing the ball off on a power play and seeing what he can do with it, or also run and pass blocking for me. I’m not going to, I guess, judge him before you see it.”
That’s where the leadership of the Buckeyes football team, Weber’s peers, becomes vital. Encouraging, supportive – but real. As quickly as he’s been awarded the chance to become the next great Ohio State tailback, it can be taken away.
On Tuesday, Barrett said that “everybody is just trying to get a piece of the pie,” but the Buckeyes defensive captain, linebacker Raekwon McMillan, is about a different kind of pie for Weber. Humble pie.
“Everybody is talking about Mike Weber. I mean, he really has to get through a camp first,” said McMillan, mirroring the concerns that Meyer has about Weber’s ability to stay healthy. “Last year he only made it halfway through camp. To prove to his teammates and to me, you got to make it all the way through camp.”
That’s not McMillan trying to slow down the hype train, that’s just him being real about what it takes to succeed at Ohio State. Is it possible that Weber can’t stay healthy, or gets complacent or comfortable thinking he’s an established starter and star before he’s earned it on the field?
Things can change real quick. In 2014, Ezekiel Elliott lost his starting role for a week after Rod Smith was dismissed midseason because he thought he could take it easy in practice. That’s not acceptable in Columbus.
“I really feel like if he can make it all the way through camp at Ohio State, he can excel and do the same thing and put up the same numbers that Zeke did,” McMillan added. “There are a lot of high expectations that he’s got to live up to. He’s got to come in on a daily basis and work, put in the work. We’re not going to let him off easy. If he comes in a day and doesn’t feel like working, he’s going to get moved to the side and the next man up is going to be ready to play.”
To be the man at running back in Columbus comes with certain expectations. Chic Harley, Vic Janowicz, Hopalong Cassady, Archie Griffin, Keith Byars, Robert Smith, Raymont Harris, Eddie George, Jonathan Wells, Beanie Wells, Carlos Hyde, and Ezekiel Elliott and many, many more have created that. Meyer and the Buckeyes know there’s a premium placed on being in that role and it’s up to Weber to continue the legacy, but he’s not doing it alone.
“It’s more the power of the unit, and that’s Tony Alford and Mickey Marotti,” Meyer said. “That’s the term we use and with a guy like Mike, such a critical guy, I’m very close with him. That’s the Cadillac position in sports, one of them, to be the starting tailback. My name is going to be on that one, so I just want to make sure it’s good. I do spend a lot of time with that, but Tony Alford’s done a really good job with him.”
A good job, but a job that’s not close to done.