Ohio State will be without 16 starters from last season’s 12-1 team, but the player OSU might miss the most is running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott was one of five Buckeyes drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. He went fourth overall to the Dallas Cowboys after a brilliant career in Columbus, rushing for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns during his big junior season. That type of talent doesn’t just walk through the door and Ohio State doesn’t have an obvious answer at the position.
At least not right now.
Urban Meyer always seems to find a way at that position. Every year since arriving in 2012, he’s had a featured back carry the ball at least 185 times and gain at least 970 yards. That streak could be broken this season, because back in March Meyer might have hinted about using a backfield by committee when he said he imagined four players carrying the ball for the Buckeyes this season.
Tailbacks Bri’onte Dunn and Mike Weber appear to be the two competing for starting duties. H-back Curtis Samuel will factor into the running game and Dontre Wilson also could take handoffs this season.
The glaring concern is that no one has much experience. The halfbacks on OSU’s current depth chart combined for 31 carries, 223 yards and two touchdowns last season. Samuel accounted for 132 yards and a touchdown while Dunn scampered for 91 yards and a touchdown.
But that inexperience shouldn’t really be a cause for alarm. Elliott had similar numbers as as freshman – 30 carries, 262 yards, two touchdowns – but then busted out as a sophomore, gaining 1,878 yards with 18 rushing TDs in 2014. Back-to-back 1,800-yard seasons earned him that high draft pick.
The same thing might happen again because the two players vying to replace Elliott are similarly talented. Dunn, a four-star recruit, was rated as the No. 96 prospect nationally and the No. 8 running back in the Class of 2012. Weber, also a four-star prospect, was No. 78 overall and No. 9 among tailbacks in the Class of 2015.
By comparison, Elliott was rated as the No. 69 recruit in the nation and the No. 5 tailback in the Class of 2013. So the dropoff in talent isn’t that steep. But potential and production are two different things.
The hope is that the system will produce another star. It might not matter who is lining up at running back as long as Meyer’s zone-read offense is humming at its typical proficiency. Quarterback J.T. Barrett also will help lessen the burden on the tailbacks with his ability to make plays with his legs.
Legends aren’t easily replaced and it could take a few weeks for Ohio State to find its winning formula in the backfield. Whether someone rises to the top or the group does the work together, history suggests Ohio State’s running game will be just fine in 2016.
All recruiting rankings come from 247Sports.com composite rankings unless otherwise noted