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Mike Weber and a closer look at Urban Meyer’s running backs track record

Can Meyer strike dominance gold a third time in Columbus?

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

Mike Weber had a good, but not elite season in 2016. But can he take the next step in 2017 and become a dominant running back like Elliott and Hyde before him?

Described as a “bruising” runner reminiscent of Carlos Hyde, Urban Meyer said last season that Weber is “... a thumper and a plus-yardage guy most of the time. Zeke was too, but he doesn't have the top end that Zeke has. We're working on that. And Carlos was a great back. We have been fortunate, and I think Mike falls right in that category. Mike has great feet, great power, and that's why I compare him a little bit closer to Carlos Hyde.”

The problem was that Weber wasn’t always used as a “thumper” last season. It seemed like he would occasionally be forgotten about, as J.T. Barrett seemed to get the ball just as often on third-and-short.

So what were his strengths and weaknesses relative to other Ohio State running backs under Urban Meyer and what can we expect his development to be like as a redshirt sophomore?

Ohio State RBs 2013-2016

Year Player Height Weight Weight/Height Rushes Yards Hlt/Opp OppRate Team OppRate Dif Team OppRate
Year Player Height Weight Weight/Height Rushes Yards Hlt/Opp OppRate Team OppRate Dif Team OppRate
2016 Mike Weber 70 212 3.03 182 1096 5.59 42.9% 48.0% -5.1%
2016 Curtis Samuel 71 197 2.77 97 771 6.72 60.8% 48.0% 12.8%
2016 Demario McCall 69 182 2.64 49 270 4.18 40.8% 48.0% -7.2%
2015 Ezekiel Elliott 72 225 3.13 289 1821 6.03 45.0% 47.4% -2.4%
2015 Curtis Samuel 71 200 2.82 17 132 6.28 52.9% 47.4% 5.5%
2014 Ezekiel Elliott 72 225 3.13 273 1878 6.64 46.5% 49.5% -3.0%
2013 Carlos Hyde 72 235 3.26 208 1521 5.03 57.2% 55.7% 1.5%
2013 Ezekiel Elliott 72 218 3.03 30 268 6.39 63.3% 55.7% 7.6%

Some quick observations from the data:

  • Ohio State’s four starting running backs over the last four years — Weber, Elliott, and Hyde — averaged 224 pounds and 3.14 pounds per inch (to the extent we can trust the official Ohio State roster’s information).

Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Mike Weber weighed 212 and 3.03 pounds per inch — putting him at roughly the same size as Elliott in 2013, when he backed up Carlos Hyde.

Will we see a bigger Mike Weber who can handle increased carries in 2017? It’s worth remembering (for both Weber and J.K. Dobbins) that many didn’t expect Zeke to get as big as he did -- he certainly seemed closer to Jordan Hall than Carlos Hyde when he first got on campus.

  • Ohio State backup running backs weighed 199 pounds and 2.81 pounds per inch on average, which is roughly 25 pounds less than the starting running back. Two of those backs — Curtis Samuel and Demario McCall — were really H-Back-sized, while Elliott’s 2013 season was the only year where the second-string running back was a true running back.

Meyer’s running backs at Florida tended towards that size too — i.e., Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. In fact, the Florida blog OurTwoBits (formerly Bourbon Meyer), argued back in 2012 that, “be cautious about how excited you get about any running back that Urban recruits and signs.

Urbs won a lot of games with Florida using the running back as a tool, but either never used the tailback as a feature in the offense or never recruited a 20+ carry per game guy.” That’s obviously changed in Meyer’s Ohio State offenses.

  • Highlight yards per opportunity, which captures a running back’s explosiveness, clearly shows how special Elliott was. Especially during the 2014 season, where he averaged over a whole highlight yard more per opportunity than Weber did last season. But Weber falls squarely in the middle between Hyde and Elliott in the respective final seasons when it comes to explosiveness.
  • Carlos Hyde’s insane opportunity rate in 2013 distorts the data here, but it’s clear that Weber was less efficient on a per-carry basis than either Hyde or Elliott were. The offensive line had a lower team opportunity rate than either the 2014 or 2013 seasons, but Weber was still less efficient when you compare his opportunity rate to the team’s overall opportunity rate (-5.1% compared to -2.4% for Zeke in 2015, -3% in 2014, and +1.5% for Hyde in 2013).
  • So the picture you have of Weber is that he is somewhere between Elliott and Hyde in terms of explosiveness, but less efficient than either.
  • While it seemed like Weber wasn’t often used on third downs last season, he averaged a solid 4.14 yards per carry on third and three or less last season. Elliott averaged 5.77 ypc in similar situations in 2015, but just 2.53 in 2014. And Hyde averaged 2.86 ypc in 2013. It is true however that J.T. Barrett was used just as often in short yardage situations as Weber — both had 22 carries on third and three or less (Barrett averaged 3.65 ypc to Weber’s 4.14).
  • Both Curtis Samuel and Ezekiel Elliott had incredible efficiency and explosiveness as young players. After their roles increased as upperclassmen (Samuel received about 5 times the number of carries last season), their efficiency and explosiveness either improved (for Samuel) or stayed about the same (Elliott actually declined in opportunity rate from 2013) — all that changed was how many carries they received.

The lesson here is obvious -- the best predictor of future success is just making the most of limited opportunities when players are young. Does that mean bad things for Demario McCall, whose performance last season was the worst of the group in both opportunity rate and highlight yards per opportunity? I don’t think so, especially given his size last year relative to the other players (he was about 35 pounds lighter than the other backs). This also suggests that we should pay attention to J.K. Dobbins’ stats this season, even if he only gets 25 carries in garbage time.

Ultimately, if Weber can improve his efficiency over last year, then he should settle into a role somewhere between Hyde (low explosiveness, high efficiency) and Elliott (excellent at both). I think most Ohio State fans would be just fine with that outcome.