COLUMBUS, Ohio — Space is limited in the Ohio State backfield, but Antonio Williams isn’t just another name on the waiting list.
Sure, the reigning MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game is returning at the top of the depth chart. Another rusher with a 1,000-yard season under his belt put off the NFL for another year and is poised for a heavy workload. And then there’s Williams, and behind him, Ohio State isn’t slowing down its recruitment of elite talent and already has another potential star on campus this spring.
But for all the acclaim J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber have earned or the hype around freshman Master Teague, it’s Williams who consistently has drawn some of the highest praise during the practices leading up to the closing scrimmage Saturday at the Horseshoe. And to suggest that the junior is content to just take a backseat to any of those talented tailbacks or that Ohio State doesn’t believe he belongs alongside them would be selling short a player who has become one of the most respected on the roster.
“I think that’s part of the Ohio State tradition,” Williams said. “We talk about the brotherhood here, and that brotherhood is understanding who you are and what you are for this team. That may be understanding that I didn’t play that much so far. But you have to sacrifice yourself a little bit; that’s part of being a Buckeye. I did that, I’ve done that and I will continue to do that if I need to, but eventually I think it’s going to work out for me.
“I think the carries will come, I really do. I’m just going to be patient — no, not patient — I’m going to grind and get it. I think it will come.”
Rushing attempts could hardly be any tougher to come by than they are right now at Ohio State, which could have its hands full simply divvying up the workload between Dobbins and a healthy Weber. Even if the Buckeyes wind up scaling back the quarterback rushes, they still will be part of the playbook. And throw in the H-backs, and it can get challenging to see exactly how Williams fits into the equation offensively.
He already has established himself as a weapon in short-yardage situations and had 3 touchdowns last season. He also finished his sophomore campaign with 57 carries and 290 yards. Based on the way he’s been performing on the practice field, at a minimum it seems Williams should be in line for that sort of production. But it increasingly looks as if he could play his way into more touches, even on a crowded depth chart, though Ohio State is expecting him to have an impact with or without the football in his hands.
“He’s one of the leaders of my room,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “He understands the culture and what we’re trying to do. First and foremost, he’s a pro. He’s a professional about how he handles his business. He’s an extremely mature kid; he has improved. He’s probably, in my estimation, one of our top-3 guys on the team as far as improvement. That’s coming from me, and obviously I’m a little biased probably. He’s had a great spring, great attitude and he’s a pro when he handles his business.
“At the end of the day, that’s all you can do is [do] the best you can when your number is called. That’s what he’s done.”
Dobbins, of course, is going to have his number called more frequently. And the same is true for Weber, particularly if those pesky hamstring issues can stay in the past.
But by all accounts, Williams has closed the gap in his push for playing time. And whether or not being patient was the right word for it, he’s ready when his opportunities arrive.
“I think I play a good role,” Williams said. “I’m kind of the leader in the room, do what I need to do for the team. Whatever is best for the team, that’s what I do. That’s what I’m here for.
“As a football player, of course you’re going to get a bit frustrated [with a lack of playing time]. But at the same time, understand what you do and what you’re best at. I think I’m a pretty good leader with those two guys. That’s what I do.”
Williams isn’t too shabby as a rusher, either.
And a strong spring should earn him some reservations for carries by the fall.