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Ohio State’s versatile Demario McCall is proving he’s capable of more than mop-up duty

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Assuming MSU doesn’t shock the world, the young back should be fun to watch on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After showing impressive potential against Bowling Green and Rutgers early in the season, freshman running back Demario McCall was left on the sideline as the going got tough for the Buckeyes during the four-game stretch in October. However, with Ohio State’s back-to-back 62-3 victories over Nebraska and Maryland, the North Ridgeville grad has again struck the fancy of the Buckeye faithful. With H-back Curtis Samuel on pace to have a record-setting season, many have already penciled him into the 2017 NFL Draft. If that’s the case, McCall just might be the next explosive playmaker for OSU.

While recent memory is more than enough to remind Buckeye fans of Michigan State’s ability to spoil the Scarlet and Grey’s postseason hopes, S&P+ rankings forecast a comfortable 30-point victory for Ohio State. While fans shouldn’t count their victories before their hatched, if that is in fact what happens, this could be an opportunity to see what McCall is able to do against a tough-nosed defense that head coach Urban Meyer says on film still looks as tough as ever.

With their season almost certainly over after their game against Penn State a week from Saturday, there should be no underestimating the motivation of a proud team looking to play spoiler after figuring out how to win, beating Rutgers 49-0 last weekend. So, just keep in mind that whether is was 1998 or 2015, the Spartans have a knack for upending the Buckeyes’ postseason plans.

So, for the curiosity and entertainment value of seeing how the young back does against the Spartans, McCall is the offensive player to watching against Michigan State this weekend.

The stats

Name: Demario McCall
Number: 30
Position: Running Back
Year: Freshman
Height: 5’9
Weight: 182 lbs.
Rushing: 273 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving: 84 yards, 1 TD

In his limited playing time this season, most long after the game has been decided, McCall has proven that he has the speed and elusiveness to be a difference-maker at the collegiate level.

Coming out of high school, he is a little undersized for the pounding of a full Big Ten schedule, but strength coach Mickey Marotti will certainly work to improve that, and as a recruit, McCall was clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.54 seconds. Needless to say, this back has the makings of a special player.

As evidenced in the above highlight, he has both the speed to run away from defenders, the fast-twitch muscles to move laterally, and the vision and decision-making to find holes.

Opposition research

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

There is no doubt that since former OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio took over as the head coach in East Lansing in 2007, the Michigan State Spartans have been one of college football’s best defensive units, finishing in the Top-10 nationally in Total Defense in four of the last five years. However, this season has not been nearly as positive, having given up 30 points or more in five games, the most since 2009.

The decline in productivity is especially startling when comparing the 2015 team to this year’s. Last year, MSU ranked 12th in Defensive Passing S&P+ and 15th in Rushing. Through 10 games in 2016, they currently rank 105th and 63rd.

On both sides of the ball, Dantonio has been forced to rely on unproven players more than he has with his traditionally veteran-laden teams of the past, and that has led to an uncharacteristically high number of penalties; 67 flags accounting for 641 yards in 10 games, which ranks as 106th in the country out of 128 teams. While the inexperienced squad has caused both penalty and productivity issues for the Spartans this season, it could set them up nicely to rebound next year.

This season, junior linebacker Chris Fry leads the team in tackles with 57, and senior LB Riley Bullough, who missed time with injury earlier this season, has turned in double-digit tackles in three of the five Big Ten games that he’s played in, Northwestern (12), Michigan (14), and Illinois (11). With the Spartans all but eliminated from bowl consideration, certainly the All-Big Ten performer would like to make his mark in one of his last high-profile games.

What to watch for

If this Saturday’s game is anything like the last two (which there is no guarantee that it will be), McCall should start seeing playing time at some point late in the second quarter or early in the third. After the Nebraska game, Meyer said that in addition to a lack of physical strength and experience, the one thing keeping the freshman from the field more often is a lack of ball security in practice.

However, the coach noted that he is already seeing improvements on that front. “He's a very want-to guy,” Meyer said. “He's not defiant. So he will play. He's earning the right to play around here.”

On the first offensive play after halftime against Maryland, McCall took a swing pass from quarterback J.T. Barrett, and turned it into a 32-yard gain. While he was racing past defenders on the sideline, it is noticeable that he was keeping the ball high and tight, but in his exposed right arm. While the technique was sound, switching the ball to his outside arm might have prevented a turnover had the tackle knocked the ball loose. Correcting small things like this could get McCall more touches in the season’s home-stretch.

If McCall continues to work on taking care of the ball, there’s no doubt that he has the potential to contribute to future Buckeye squads, but also to this one as a possible playoff berth unfolds. With senior Dontre Wilson leaving the Maryland game due to injury, and still struggling to figure out how to be most productive, McCall’s speed and escapability could prove to be valuable against teams who haven’t yet considered him one of the team’s major weapons.

Ohio State will take on the Michigan State Spartans this Saturday at 12 p.m. from East Lansing. The game will air on ESPN, and Land-Grant Holy Land will have all of your coverage before, during, and after the game.