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What do the advanced stats tell us about Ohio State's running backs?

The Buckeyes will certainly receive an influx of true and redshirt freshmen looking to make their mark in 2015, but the offense also returns one of the most loaded groups of experienced skill players as well.

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

A little while back we took a look at what the data have to say about the 2015 quarterback race -- now it's time to turn to the skill players.

Thanks to Urban's recruiting, the Buckeyes have incredible options at running back. From 2014 we have lasting images of Ezekiel Elliott bursting through for the 80-yard touchdown against Alabama, early flashes of Curtis Samuel (who even earned a start against Illinois), and the reserve of Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball.

Michael Weber will join the Buckeyes for 2015, but thankfully the cupboard is far from bare with four former four-star running backs already in front of him on the depth chart. Of course, the modern Ohio State run game isn't entirely dominated by the running backs, as the wide receivers, hybrid slot players like Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, and quarterbacks all get their carries as well. So with Bill's last look at 2014 running back advanced stats, we can at least get a better picture of how the returning rushers performed in 2014.

Advanced running back stats

Offense Player Position Ht Wt Class Rushes Yards Hlt Yds Hlt Opps Hlt Yds/Opp
Opp Rate
Ohio State Ezekiel Elliott RB 6'0 225 SO 273 1878 842.9 127 6.64 46.5%
Ohio State J.T. Barrett QB 6'1 225 FR 148 1094 504.6 82 6.15 55.4%
Ohio State Cardale Jones QB 6'5 250 SO 67 352 162.2 33 4.92 49.3%

In case you're not familiar with what these stats mean, here are some definitions:

  • Opp Rate, or Opportunity Rate, is the percentage of carries that the back has that gain at least five yards. This partly measures the success of the offensive line, but is overall measure of how efficient the back and the running game overall are.
  • Hlt Yds, or Highlight Yards, are the yards not credited to the offensive line in the line yards formula for Opportunity Rate. It helps measure explosiveness. Similarly, Hlt Opps, or Highlight Opportunities are the number of carries the back had above the 5-yard threshold that is credited to the offensive line. If you divide Highlight Yards by Highlight Opportunities, then you get Hlt Yds/Opp, or Highlight Yards per Opportunity, a nice measure of how big a player's big runs are. Essentially, these all capture run game explosiveness.

Elliott was the eighth-most efficient running back last season according to Opportunity Rate, with close to half of his carries going for at least five yards. That's close to Hyde's number from last season. Interestingly too, Elliott was second-overall in Opportunity Rate among Power-5 conference running backs (to Shadrach Thornton from NC State) -- so it's clear the Buckeyes got themselves a good one in Zeke (and in Ed Warinner, really). When Bill multiplied Highlight Yards/Opp by Opportunity Rate, he got a good measure of overall running back quality, where Zeke ranked seventh in the country overall. These stats aren't adjusted for opponent, but it seems to be a good measure of running back success regardless.

This also shows that Elliott tends toward efficiency over explosiveness. It's clear Zeke has that extra gear in him, as Alabama's secondary can attest, but his overall Highlight Yards/Opp was good, but not among the top ten among running backs. That's indicative of an offense that is built on efficiency, but with talented players like Zeke (and presumably Curtis Samuel) that can create big plays as well.

Similar to Zeke's dominant performance among the running backs, both quarterbacks performed well in the QB rush rankings. Funny enough, despite Cardale's punishing short-yardage runs in big games, J.T. actually had a better Opportunity Rate and Highlight Yards/Opportunity than Cardale. Part of this is definitely due to the fact that Jones played three of the best defenses in the country during his three starts, but I think the bigger point here is that J.T. is a very underrated rusher -- the fifth-best in the country in Highlight Yards/Opp x Opp Rate. Something else to keep in mind with these numbers: Cardale rushed an average of 7.2 times per game compared to J.T. at 14.25 attempts per game.

When you bring all of those players back, along with the bulk of that offensive line, Ohio State should once again have a very efficient and productive running game next season, and if they have poor injury luck, they have plenty of exciting youngsters behind them.