COLUMBUS, Ohio — The perfect example for what the Ohio State backfield should look like isn’t hard to find.
The Buckeyes themselves provided the blueprint — a blueprint used not that long ago and featuring all the running backs they have on hand this spring.
They’ve seen J.K. Dobbins handle the majority of the carries and wear down defenders with his physical approach. They’ve watched Mike Weber come fresh off the bench and pull away from defenders like somebody had spiked his Gatorade with rocket fuel. There were even opportunities in that romp of Michigan State’s touted rush defense to get Antonio Williams involved for a handful of carries, which might come in handy since it’s looking like the Buckeyes might need to expand their rotation based on the way he’s been practicing.
So, obviously Ohio State should just do that every week, right?
“It’s like anything else, we’re going to do what’s conducive to help us win games — however that looks,” running back coach Tony Alford said. “It just depends on the flow of the game and how things are going. If you go back to that week [against Michigan State], that did work in our favor.
“We’ll kind of see how it goes. It will be a week-by-week deal, but they’re both going to play. And they’re both going to play a lot. How’s that for a crystal ball?”
Alford has often joked about his inability to predict the future, and unfortunately he didn’t get any of the tools he wanted for Christmas to help sharpen his prognosticating abilities. But he does have the benefit of hindsight and proof of what Ohio State is capable of when its backfield is fully healthy, balanced and given an opportunity to showcase its depth.
Dobbins earned his spot as the starter last season as one of the most dynamic freshman rushers in the country, and the 18 carries he had against the Spartans feels like the right volume of touches for him without wearing him out. And with another proven, elite tailback waiting in the wings, Michigan State had no answer when Weber got his chances — exploding for 162 yards on just 9 attempts, sparked by an 82-yarder that showcased his breakaway speed.
And while Williams was mainly just used to bleed out the clock down the stretch, Ohio State has used him effectively as a short-yardage weapon in the past. And coming off a season that included 3 touchdowns, he’s also building a case that he could be used to do more than just move piles or play in mop-up duty.
“Yeah, I feel like that [Michigan State game] would be a good example,” Dobbins said. “That felt great.
“But that’s not up to me, that’s a coach’s decision. I don’t know how they split it up, I don’t know how to do it. … We get along well. I mean, we push each other, of course. But it’s not our decision, that’s the coach’s decision. Whatever the coaches want.”
That decision isn’t always as clear-cut as it might seem. And figuring out just the right approach is where it gets tricky for Alford and the rest of the coaching staff when other factors creep into play.
Do the Buckeyes need to ride a hot hand? Does it take a certain amount of carries before a rusher finds a groove? Do certain game plans need to feature better blitz pickup skills at running back or lean on somebody who has the better set of hands to help as a target for the passing game? Are some of the carries being limited by the defensive looks and quarterback keepers? What about the score, time and situation of the game?
Just about the only thing Alford isn’t trying to factor into the decision is emotions. In other words, whatever Ohio State winds up doing, it won’t be to appease everybody in his room.
“I’m not a kind of guy who wants to keep people happy,” Alford said. “The guys that deserve to play are going to play. There’s going to be a lot of competition, and they all know it. They’re going to champion each other’s successes and help each other out when they’re not having success, somebody better help pick them up. As one goes, we all go.
“It’s not about keeping guys happy, because guys that produce are going to play. Guys that earn the right to play will play. That’s not about keeping people happy. You’re happy when you win.”
The Buckeyes did that with ease against the Spartans last year, and the running backs paved the way.
All they need to do now is repeat it as often as possible.