Raise your hand if you remember the last time that an Ohio State freshman running back started a season as strongly as Mike Weber has in 2016.
If your hand is currently raised, put it down, because you are lying. No freshman in Ohio State history has ever had a season like the one Weber is on pace for; Ezekiel Elliott didn’t, Carlos Hyde didn’t, Maurice Clarett didn’t, Eddie George didn’t, Robert Smith didn’t, not even Archie Griffin was able to get out of the gate like Weber has.
Obviously, counting eventual records broken just four games into a running back’s freshman campaign is more than a bit foolish. However, in an era of college football in which offensive records are being shattered at an alarming pace, the question does bear consideration, despite the necessary brake-pumping; is the running back from Detroit the best freshman in Ohio State’s illustrious history at the position?
Thus far, Weber has racked up 495 rushing yards in his first four games. That translates to 123.8 per game. If Weber continues on this pace, he will total anywhere from 1,609-1,857 yards, depending on how the Buckeyes’ postseason fortunes shake out. Perhaps needless to say, either total (or anything approaching) would be an Ohio State freshman record. The current mark dates back to Clarett’s historic 2002 season in which he amassed 1,237 yards and a crystal football.
There are plenty of caveats that must be thrown into the mix when attempting to forecast Weber’s season; first of all, it’s only been four games, and two of those games were against two of the worst rush defenses in college football; Bowling Green ranks 115th, giving up 227.2 ypg, and Rutgers is at 116th with 227.4, both due in no small part to the bludgeoning delivered at the hands of the Buckeyes.
While Weber went for 136 against BG and a career high 144 against Rutgers, for which he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week, he also faired fairly well against Tulsa (ranked 63rd) with 92 yards, and Oklahoma (ranked 39th) with 123, so it is not a foregone conclusion that he will wilt against better defenses.
The Buckeyes’ remaining opponents are allowing 136.6 ypg on average, a total that would rank them 47th in rushing defense as a team. That total is roughly 3/4s of the average Ohio State’s first four opponents have given up. So, if from this point out, Weber averages only 75% of what he has been putting up thus far, that would bring him in around 1,330 yards in a 13 game season and 1,516 in a 15 game season, both breaking Mo C’s record.
It must also be said that while Ohio State’s early-season foes weren’t the most stout, the same could be said for those of the teams remaining on the Buckeyes’ schedule; so their defensive prowess could eventually prove to be over-inflated.
History has its eyes on him
In 1972, the NCAA began allowing freshman to play college football for the first time outside of war years. The timing couldn’t have been better for a running back out of Eastmoor High School named Archie Griffin.
That year, playing for Woody Hayes, the innovator of the “Three Yards in a Cloud of Dust” offense, Griffin totaled 867 yards during his 11-game freshman season.
Eighteen years later, Smith became the first Buckeye freshman RB to break the 1,000-yard mark with 1,126 yards in 1990. OSU fans would have to wait over two more decades before another back accomplished that feat. In 2002, Clarett set the current freshman record, playing in just 11 of Ohio State’s 14 games en route to the national championship.
So while Weber is on pace to crack 1,000 yards early in the November 5th game against Nebraska, the cards, and the demands of college football, are stacked against him. During his legendary freshman campaign, Clarett missed multiple games with injuries, most revolving around a torn medial meniscus in his right knee.
Though Weber has played extended seasons before, including 14 games as a senior at Cass Tech, losing in the State Semi-Finals, high school opposition is not exactly comparable to the beating that a running back takes against grown men, in Big Ten defenses.
One advantage that Weber has over Clarett, Smith, and Griffin is that he is a redshirt freshman, while the first collegiate action for those others came in true freshman seasons; and a year working under Strength Coach Mickey Marotti should not be undervalued.
The rigors of being a college running back have been difficult for many talented Buckeyes, including two of OSU’s most recent stars. Hyde totaled only 141 yards as a freshman in 2010, and Elliott put up only 262 in 2013, and their careers turned out just fine. Both now NFL backs, their career rushing totals rank eighth and second respectively in Ohio State history.
Coincidently, quarterback J.T. Barrett bested even Archie in 2014, when he ran for 938 yards as a true freshman.
The other major historical change that has trended towards Weber having a statistically unparalleled season is the type of offenses and defenses being run in today’s college football. While running games are still as important to most college football teams’ success as they have ever been, how they are used is different.
Instead of hard-nosed, up-the-middle slobberknocking, for teams that run more spread-based offenses, holes tend to be much larger, and defenders spread across the field, allowing for less contact and more yards gained.
And, despite the increased tempo of hurry-up offenses, the number of rushing attempts for the Buckeyes has not dramatically changed over the decades. In Griffin’s freshman year, OSU ran the ball 660 times. In Smith’s first season, the total was 506. Two years later when George was a freshman, it was just 541. Under Jim Tressel it was 629 during Clarett’s only season in Columbus, and last season it was just 554.
However, if things continue as they are, Ohio State could total anywhere from 663 to 765 rushing attempts, depending on if they make the College Football Playoff or not.
Compared to the greats
Weber’s impressive start has already begun to draw comparisons to the other running backs to play at Ohio State under Urban Meyer’s spread system.
During his weekly press conference, Meyer was asked which back, Hyde or Elliott, Weber reminds him of most. Urban immediately said Hyde, noting their shared affinity for contact, and that Weber doesn’t have the speed of Elliott, at least not yet.
“He's a banger,” Meyer said. “(Weber’s) a thumper and a plus yardage guy most of the time. Zeke was too. (Weber) doesn't have the top end that Zeke has. We're working on that… I think Mike falls right in that category.”
One similarity that Meyer noted between Weber and Elliott is their willingness to sell out in pass blocking.
“His protection is outstanding. His effort is -- really pleased what he's turned into,” Meyer said.
For his part, Weber has downplayed the comparisons between him and Ohio State’s two most recent big name runners.
“I just go out there and play my hardest,” he said at a recent media availability. “I want to be myself at the end of the day. Those two are great running backs, so I have a lot of work to do.”
So far in 2016, Weber has been just fine being himself. His 123.8 yards per game on the ground leads the Big Ten; coincidentally (or not), Elliott leads the NFL with 103 ypg.