Some things in sports never change.
March Madness will have upsets, Cleveland fans will always have something to complain about and the Ohio State football program will have a talented stable of running backs.
Of the program’s seven Heisman trophies, five were won by running backs, including the only two-time winner in Archie Griffin from 1974-75.
Even in this modern age where plenty of focus is placed on the passing game — especially under the high-tempo offense run by coach Urban Meyer — the Buckeyes have found a way to succeed in the running game.
Last season it was Carlos Hyde, who ran for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns, becoming the first running back under Meyer to break the 1,000-yard barrier. Now, with Hyde and Jordan Hall out of eligibility and sophomore Dontre Wilson working with the wide receivers, the Buckeyes head into the 2014 season with no established No. 1 running back — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Between sophomores Ezekiel Elliott, redshirt-sophomores Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball and freshman and early enrollee Curtis Samuel, Meyer has his hands full selecting the starter for next season.
“We wanted to give Ezekiel a handful of reps and then get him out,” Meyer said of balancing the running backs’ snaps during the 2014 Spring Game Saturday. “The guy that really, really excites me is No. 4, Curtis Samuel. We just gotta figure out if he’s got enough size and strength to take the pounding running back’s take … Bri’onte Dunn looked pretty good and then you have Warren Ball, he looked pretty good. So we have some depth there, but right now 15 (Elliott) and 4 (Samuel) are the two.”
Elliott is the top statistical running back returning for OSU, after finishing fifth on the team with 262 yards and two touchdowns. He used his explosive ability to finish second overall on the team in terms of average yards per carry with 8.7.
During spring practice, Elliott was treated as the top running back, but had the rest of the group breathing down his neck.
“Ezekiel’s still a bit inconsistent,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said March 25. “Still plays like a freshman, unfortunately, at times. But of the group before today, I might say he was ahead … (The) other two guys, Bri’onte and Warren, are pushing. They’re getting better and it’s noticeable that they haven’t lost the drive. They can still see that there (is) a battle there and if they keep busting their tails, they can work their way into that rotation.”
Another back potentially in the mix is redshirt-senior Rod Smith, who tallied 117 yards and a touchdown last season. But Smith was forced to sit out of the Spring Game because of poor academics and missed the opportunity to prove himself worthy of that starting role.
“Rod Smith was here, but he’s focusing on academics … We gotta see where Rod goes, because Rod was having a very good spring before we had to set him down a little bit,” Meyer said.
Meyer added despite the performances in spring practice, he is “not ready to name a starter yet.”
In a defense-driven game, the teams combined for less total yards (447) than OSU averaged per game in 2013 (511.9), but the running backs managed to produce.
Ball finished with the highest total of any player with 55 yards and a touchdown, while Dunn added 35 yards and also visited the end zone.
Dunn said after the game the battle for the starting position is tight, but whoever wins, he will be happy for him.
“Every day I’m just going to work hard. I’m going to work hard,” Dunn said. “Everybody in my unit, in the running back unit, is like my brother. Whoever gets the (top) spot is going to deserve that spot. As for me, I’m going to work my hardest.”
The battle to be starting running back has actually helped bring the players closer together, Dunn said.
“It really, really, got us real close,” Dunn said. “(Running backs) coach (Stan) Drayton did a good job of getting us close.”
Dunn was redshirted in 2013 despite finishing fifth on the team in rushing yards in 2012, with 133, to go along with two touchdowns.
Redshirting was not an easy experience, Dunn said, but it helped him grow as a player and be able to fight for a starting role.
“Redshirting, at first, was very difficult,” Dunn said. “But I realized why I was redshirted and I think that helped me because I went against the first team (defense) every day, worked on my fundamentals and that really got me better as a player. Last year was just a year for me to get better.”
Dunn added he was redshirted because he “got off to a slow start” in 2013 and needed time to develop.
Now with spring practice over, the Buckeyes must wait until fall camp to make a decision on who takes the snaps with the first team offense during the season opener against Navy Aug. 30.
Kickoff for the game is scheduled for noon at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.