COLUMBUS, Ohio — Filling a spot in the Ohio State starting lineup formerly occupied by one of the greatest players in school history, Mike Weber had his work cut out for himself.
So as expectations for Weber mounted entering his first season of action at the college level, surely his head coach did what he could to alleviate any pressure he felt to live up to the standard set by former Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott, right?
“No,” Urban Meyer said, dismissing the idea he’d have such a conversation with Weber. In fact, he took the opposite approach when it came to his pep talk.
“Try to be Zeke,” Meyer said. “The thing that we try to do around here, in all seriousness, is there’s standards. Be (former All-American safety) Vonn Bell. Go be him. Be (Joey) Bosa. Those are standards that have been set here.”
Weber remembers the conversation well.
“I really was like, ‘Dang, man. You don’t want me to be myself?'” Weber recalls. “I just think he wants high expectations. I’m working hard to get there.”
Weber isn’t quite on Elliott’s 1,800-yard pace, but after the first 10 games of his college career, Weber is just 65 yards shy of becoming Meyer’s third 1,000-yard back at Ohio State.
With two games left in the regular season, the second-ranked Buckeyes are going to need those yards — and then some — to remain in the picture of the College Football Playoff. For the Detroit native, the final two games of his freshman season will carry extra significance as well.
Starting with Saturday’s matchup with Michigan State, Ohio State’s next two games come against teams from Weber’s home state — including the Buckeyes’ rival he was once committed to.
At a powerhouse program like Ohio State, dramatic recruitments have come to be expected, but very few have contained as many twists and turns as Weber’s.
Originally, the 4-star prospect and nation’s ninth-ranked running back had committed to Michigan as a member of Brady Hoke’s 2015 class. But as the Wolverines’ 2014 campaign took a turn for the worse and talk of Hoke’s firing turned from speculative to inevitable, Weber opted to reconsider his options.
With the Detroit Cass Tech product decommitting from Michigan in late-November, the Buckeyes were back in the game when it came to Weber’s recruitment. Little did they know, they were about to receive some unexpected help in the form of Elliott’s breakout run through the 2014 postseason.
“It was almost unreal,” Weber said of Elliott’s three-game postseason stretch, which saw him total 696 combined yards and eight touchdowns in wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. “He had like 700 yards in three games. The line was blocking crazy. Ohio State just took off from there.”
The same could be said of the Buckeyes when it came to Weber’s recruitment, with the top-100 prospect committing to Ohio State a week after Elliott’s 220-yard, two-touchdown showing in the Big Ten title game.
The race for Weber’s services, however, was far from over.
The Harbaugh effect
After hiring Jim Harbaugh at the end of the 2014 calendar year, it didn’t take long for the Wolverines’ new head coach to apply a full court press to the state of Michigan’s second-ranked player. Twice in a five-day span, Wolverines running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley visited Weber. Ohio State cornerbacks coach and the Buckeyes’ Michigan-area recruiter Kerry Coombs doubled his efforts as well.
Come signing day, nobody seemed quite sure Weber would stick to his pledge to OSU. But after a slight delay, the Wolverine State native did just that.
“To be able to maintain it, as of 11 o’clock last night, I wasn’t sure what he was going to do,” Meyer said on signing day. “And even at 8, 9 this morning we all weren’t sure.”
The drama when it came to Weber’s recruitment was far from over.
One day after signing day, Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton left for a job with the Chicago Bears. The move surprised Meyer. It shocked Weber.
I’m hurt as hell I ain’t gone lie
— Mike Weber (@mikeweberjr) February 5, 2015
After a few weeks of cryptic tweeting — including the first unofficial Jim Harbaugh subtweet — Weber ultimately stuck with his commitment to spend his college career in Columbus following Meyer’s hiring of running backs coach Tony Alford, who unsuccessfully recruited him to Notre Dame.
Initially, it seemed like he had wavered. Weber, however, insists he was all-Buckeyes the whole time.
“Really, I chose Ohio State because it’s a really great program,” Weber says now. “Coach Meyer and his staff do a good job of putting guys in the NFL and developing guys after football. I felt at home, even though I’m not from Ohio. It’s kind of working out now.”
It’s been nearly two years since Weber’s high-profile recruitment reached its conclusion. Aside from stories that might pop up when the Buckeyes prepare to take on the Wolverines next week, all of those feelings remain in the past.
Of course, it helps that Weber now has bigger problems to worry about — like living up to the ridiculous standard his predecessor in the Ohio State backfield set for him.
As if Meyer’s expectations weren’t enough, Weber is reminded of Elliott every time he meets with the media, with reporters constantly comparing the two. To his credit, the 5-foot-10, 212-pound running back takes it in stride. But he’s also not shy to reiterate that he is his own man.
“I gotta just continue to play hard,” Weber responded when I asked him what it would take to escape Elliott’s sizable shadow. “Make more plays.”
Despite dealing with a sprained AC joint in recent weeks, Weber has been doing just that.
Entering Saturday’s showdown with the Spartans, he has 935 rushing yards and seven touchdowns to his credit, while also tallying the fifth-most receptions on the Buckeyes’ roster with 18. While he may not be the game-breaker Elliott was just yet, he has accounted for runs of 20 or more yards in each of Ohio State’s past four games.
“He’s getting better,” Meyer said. “He’s done a pretty good job, though. I think he’s still growing into it.”
It’s also worth noting that this was the time two years ago when Elliott first broke out as one of the nation’s top backs.
Best believe that Weber knows — it’s what drew him to Ohio State in the first place.