"I'm not going to limit myself by just being a running back or just playing receiver."
- Ohio State's Curtis Samuel, via Tim May, The Columbus Dispatch
It's going to be nigh-impossible for the Ohio State Buckeyes to replace the unique talent that was Ezekiel Elliott. That won't stop them from trying. With the 2016 season almost half a year away, there's still a lot of uncertainty about how Urban Meyer will structure his backfield. There's senior Bri'onte Dunn, who has toiled in relative obscurity behind Elliott and Carlos Hyde in his Buckeye career. There's Mike Weber, a redshirt freshman from Detroit's Cass Tech built in the mold of Elliott and Hyde. There's Dontre Wilson, who might really be healthy, really, and finally ready to put it all together.
And then there's Brooklyn's finest, Curtis Samuel. Samuel, who lined up primarily at H-back in 2015, is coming off of foot surgery and is far from full-strength. He also might be the most talented running back that the Buckeyes have. It's uncertain how much he'll be able to figure into the offense early on, as his recovery has kept him on the sidelines so far during spring practice. Still, it's hard not to get excited thinking about Samuel -- out from beneath Elliott's sizable shadow -- getting a high volume of touches in what promises to be a fast-paced offense.
Samuel, for his part, relishes the prospect of what he'll be able to do once he's back out on the field. "I feel like I'm going to be much better now, and I'm ready for it," he said Thursday, via The Dispatch's Tim May. Samuel isn't Zeke, but that's okay: by design, college football's only constant is change, and for a team losing 16 starters, trying to replicate what they've had in previous years would be a fool's errand. J.T. Barrett is one of the team's few stalwarts. The pieces around him look different enough that the offense will, too. Gone is Michael Thomas, an NFL-caliber downfield receiver; the Buckeyes have a full cupboard of four-and-five-star talent to replace him, but little experience at the position. Gone is Jalin Marshall, heart-attack expert and exploiter of open space; these young Buckeyes don't lack for explosive speed, but production is no guarantee. And so on and so on.
But if Urban Meyer can create his offense anew around his most dynamic players' strengths, expect the Buckeyes to be back to championship form in no time.
"If [Elliott] went to Chicago, that would be a beautiful thing."
- Stacy Elliott, father of Zeke, via The Chicago Tribune
Speaking of Ezekiel Elliott, that all-important piece of the last two Buckeye football teams: he's going to make himself a lot of money come late April. Widely considered a top-ten talent in this year's NFL Draft, many experts have him pegged to come off the board at No. 4 to the Dallas Cowboys. Whether or not the calculus changes given that Jason Garrett's team signed RB Alfred Morris remains to be seen, but if Elliott does go to Dallas, it might signal a shift back in the thinking of NFL front offices: last year, running backs were drafted with the 10th and 15th overall picks (Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon, respectively); before Gurley, the last running back to even go in the first round was Trent Richardson to Cleveland at No. 3, all the way back in 2012.
Perhaps it was the failed Richardson experiment that pushed front offices away from first-round running backs for three years, perhaps it was the larger shift in NFL balance that favors the passing game. Either way, Elliott's name being called fourth overall would be something of a return to conventional wisdom -- 2014's first tailback off the board was, uhhhh, Washington's Bishop Sankey at No. 54, while 2013's was Giovanni Bernard at 37.
An intriguing option remains, should Elliott fall past the Cowboys. The Chicago Bears have the 11th pick, and with the loss of Matt Forte this offseason, they'd have a hard time passing on one of the most complete talents we've seen emerge in years. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that Chicago's running backs coach is Stan Drayton, who held the same position at Ohio State for the first two years of Elliott's tenure.
"Every team in the NFL will do plenty of homework on the bevy of draft prospects coming out of Ohio State...but give the Dallas Cowboys points for efficiency and practicality."
- Chase Goodbread, NFL.com
The possibility for a pipeline from the Buckeyes to the 'Boys doesn't end with Elliott. Today, Dallas's coaching staff was on-hand in Columbus, hosting a number of Ohio State's best draft prospects for workouts. Given just how many Buckeyes will hear their names called during the three-day climax of the NFL's yearly offseason panem et circenses, hey, it's probably smart to check them all out!
It's beginning to feel like a given that Tennessee will take Ole Miss's Laremy Tunsil with the first overall pick, dashing Joey Bosa's dreams of holding the top spot. But the Cowboys, at No. 4, could take Bosa as easily as Elliott. The offseason departure of supremely talented human garbage heap Greg Hardy means that Dallas needs some help with the pass-rush, and Bosa could slot right in to do it.