In case you missed last week's preview of the quarterbacks, Land-Grant Holy Land is in the midst of previewing each position group for the 2013 Ohio State Buckeyes over the coming weeks. With the advent of National Signing Day, the picture for each position will become much clearer as the Buckeyes head into camp and spring practice.
This week's exploratory look will be at the running back position – one that was considered rather questionable at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, but which saw players such as Carlos Hyde blossom into real threats and Rod Smith, who was all over Buckeye Nation's message boards as a possible transfer candidate, earn the trust of the new staff and show off some skills in the process. The prospects were pretty bleak, with Smith's trust issues, Jordan Hall's nagging injuries, which ended up keeping him out for most of the season, and Bri'onte Dunn's offseason legal issues. But Hyde was a rock all season, and helped guide the rest of the backs through the tough times into becoming a part of the offense that defenses had to respect. The sheer size and power of Hyde and Smith offset the befuddling quickness and speed of Braxton Miller. As Urban Meyer looked around the country for possible Buckeye targets, he emphasized speed and quickness, and their recruiting efforts at running back reflect the search for runners that can fly out of the backfield.
If one word could be used to describe incumbent starter Carlos Hyde, it would be "consistent." After shedding some pounds in the offseason through vaunted strength coach Mick Marotti's conditioning program, Hyde put up the second-most rushing yards on the team at 970 on 185 carries (about half a first down per carry). He also led the team with a whopping 16 touchdowns, as Hyde was the main man inside the ten-yard-line. Hyde also led the running backs with 8 catches for 42 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. This year, the rising senior will most likely start in the backfield and is currently the reigning #1 on the depth chart. There have been no indications that his production will fall off next year, although he will have to share more carries with some incoming freshmen and a redshirt senior returning from injury.
Speaking of that senior, Jordan Hall returns with a fifth year of eligibility. Despite his foot injury, he still managed to have the second-most carries with 40, garnering 218 yards along with a touchdown. He also contributed 3 catches for 31 yards, but Hall's biggest impact may be in the return game, as Ohio State still lacks a proven game-breaker from that position. Do not be surprised if Hall spends less time coming out of the backfield and more time in a slot/Percy Harvin position (aka 'Pivot'). Urban Meyer wants to put his best and quickest athletes in space, and Hall has earned himself a share of the carries this year. Most observers fully expect Hall to be the #1 backup to Carlos Hyde (along with the top contributor at the Pivot role as Meyer suggested all last offseason), but don't be shocked if he's most effective out of the backfield.
Rod Smith will enter his junior year as the third-stringer (or de facto #2 if you consider Hall's versatility). Smith, despite his fumble-itis early in his career, earned back some trust and along the way had the longest rushing touchdown of the season, a 33-yarder, in 2012. He also caught a 51-yard touchdown on a screen pass, which was one of his two catches all year. Smith averaged 6.7 yards per carry and became an x-factor in the running game. Perhaps the backfield's most complete athlete, he also saw time on kick returns. Smith is a solid candidate to take the next step up to second string and push Jordan Hall out of the running back depth chart altogether, as he is more of the balanced back that Urban Meyer wants to see behind or alongside Braxton Miller in power run situations.
Bri'onte Dunn is the next in line, and saw 13 carries – mostly in mop-up time – as a true freshman. He also was experimented with on kickoff return duty. Dunn, like Hyde and Smith, is a banger inside and will have to earn his carries. Fellow freshman Warren Ball comes off a redshirt year, and is a more similar mold as the more traditional backs. Ball and Dunn find themselves in sort of a gray area, as they're floating between being running backs of the future and becoming possible transfer risks. Accordingly, not a ton will be expected of them this season.
Ezekiel Elliot, the highly touted freshman from St. Louis, is another electric back at or around 6 feet and 205 lbs who can really move. He has shown the speed and quickness to make defenders miss in space, but also has some surprising power to his game. If Elliot really flashes in spring practices, he could earn some time on the field. However, playing time will be a bit difficult to find at what is suddenly one of the deepest positions on the entire Buckeye roster. Elliott also drew high praise at last year's The Opening 2012 for his hands where in the 7-on-7 format, he at times even outplayed full-time receiver Jalin Marshall in terms of displaying his catching abilities.
As previously alluded to, Jordan Hall may continue to wear many hats as Urban Meyer seeks to try to find roles for all his players. The comparisons to Percy Harvin will undoubtedly continue to be beat brow beat into oblivion with the addition of new freshmen sure to solicit the lazy cliches and stereotypes. Meyer's made no secret of his desire to emphasize a flex" player – one who can catch passes out of the slot, run out of a traditional tailback formation, and execute end-arounds from a position out wide. That player must have the skills to make defenders miss and the speed to run by them afterwards. Jordan Hall will surely be No. 1 on the depth chart in this projected position, but two or three incoming freshmen could wow in practice and perhaps move the go-to-media formula from Percy Harvin to something more in line with Heisman shortlister, Oregon running back DeAnthony Thomas.
This is the spot where true freshman Dontre Wilson can contribute. He's a bit undersized, but Wilson, the much ballyhooed former Oregon commit, is a strong runner and can make people miss equally as well as he showcased on his high school tape. Expect Wilson to see some shine on the practice field and in early games, as Jordan Hall is an injury risk. James Clark has speed for days and could also see limited action in the role, but he's mostly expected to be leveraged as more of a traditional receiver.
Overall, what a difference a season makes. The depth of the various running back positions, something that was in heavy question going into 2012, is now almost unfathomably deep. With quality players up and down the depth chart, al equally hungry for their chance for touches and their chance to shine, the running back position has the chance to be one of the most competitive and high-quality positions on the entire roster going into 2013.