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Resetting Ohio State’s running back board with Bijan Robinson, Jaylan Knighton likely out

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Who do the Buckeyes look to if they miss on two top-50 players?

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Just about every recruiting analyst knows that recruiting is a fickle game. It sounds like a cliche, because, well, it is. It’s an oversimplified description of an extremely complicated and fragile world, and it’s nowhere near descriptive enough to fully explain just how wild the recruiting game is. In this case, however? Well, I’m going to say it. Recruiting is a fickle game, and Ohio State is seemingly experiencing the short end of that cliche for the first time in Ryan Day’s brief tenure as head coach.

I should establish exactly what the Buckeyes are experiencing, because right now, most of the information is being whispered rather than reported, though the whispers are getting louder. The rumors, which seem to be approaching fact, are that five-star running back Bijan Robinson is switching plans, and will not be choosing Ohio State when he announces his commitment on August 2nd. That goes against two months worth of reporting, and comes as a pretty massive surprise for, well, just about everybody.

Are the reports legit? I tend to think yes. It seems like location has become a factor here, and it seems like Robinson is more willing to leave home than his family is, and ultimately, the family won out. I expect Texas to be the choice, with the in-state Arizona Wildcats having an outside shot as well.

The natural question after that is obviously “where to now?’ and unfortunately, there’s no obvious answer. Ohio State was all in on Robinson and Jaylan Knighton as the two backs in this class, and I think they’re missing on both of them.

Just hours after whispers started swirling that Robinson was no longer solidly in the OSU column, word began circulating that after Florida State got Knighton on campus this weekend, that he would now be staying in state when he makes his commitment announcement on Tuesday

So, who fills that void?


E.J. Smith

The son of NFL legend Emmitt Smith, E.J. isn’t quite the workhorse that his dad was, but at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, I think Smith could take 20 carries a game if needed. He has good feet and vision, and while he doesn’t have elite speed, I think that he compares pretty well to essentially a taller, more powerful J.K. Dobbins. He’s a good pass-catcher out of the backfield, and I think he would be a good fit in the new-look Ohio State offense.

He named the Buckeyes in his top five last month, and he still has four official visits left to take. Stanford appears to lead here, but Ohio State suddenly having an opening could change everything. If Smith visits, which I expect he will, this could move quickly.


Jalen Berger

Berger was a major target for the Buckeyes at one point, but he fell behind Robinson and Kendall Milton (who is likely to pledge to Georgia on Monday), just like E.J. Smith did. I still don’t see him as first choice for the Buckeyes, but I expect he’ll see a renewed interest from Columbus if Robinson does in fact go elsewhere.

He has good size at 6-foot, 205 pounds, and he’s actually a bit faster than Smith is. He also has good footwork and vision (noticing a trend here?), but he lacks physicality, and is a questionable receiver at best.

Think of Berger as the more explosive choice. He’s not quite the athlete that Robinson is, but if Ohio State wants a bit of a tweener APB/workhorse, Berger is the choice. I think Smith gets the first call as a workhorse choice in this class, but if he decides to stick with Stanford, Berger still has all five official visits and has plenty of interest in being a Buckeye.


Michael Drennen II

I should note here that Michael Drennen is my favorite running back in the class of 2020. I’m not a coach, obviously, but I think he’s a tremendous talent and would be delighted to see Ohio State land him, even if it comes at the expense of Knighton.

Drennen has ideal size for an all-purpose back at 5-foot-10, 187 pounds, and I think he’s even quicker out of the cut than Knighton is. He has elite elusiveness and can make defenders miss with ease. He’s a glider, which means that he looks essentially effortless when he runs. I think he’s a perfect fit for Day’s offense, and I was surprised when Ohio State turned away from him earlier in the cycle.

Drennen has looked Kentucky-bound for a few months now, but Ohio State being open certainly changes things. The Buckeyes were included in his top-ten on July 4th, and I would imagine he’ll take an official visit this fall.

If the Buckeyes push, they should be able to land him, and they should be very very happy with that.


Lawrance Toafili

If Ohio State somehow misses on Smith and Berger, Toafili is up next. He’s pretty similar to Beger, though a little smaller and a little more physical. He’s a home run hitter, and while I’m not sure he can be a great every-down back, he would be more explosive than what Ohio State has had in years past.

If he takes a visit to Columbus this fall, he could be a legit option, especially with Florida State — his presumed favorite — now likely to land Knighton.


My guess is that Ohio State takes Smith and Drennen II, and does it quickly. Look for both to get to campus soon for an official visit, and announce pledges shortly after.

Is this a disappointment? Sure. When you think you have two top-50 players in the bag, it’s a disappointment to lose them. However, that shouldn’t be seen as a comment on landing Smith and Drennen.

Getting both Smith and Drennen would not be disappointing at all on its own. They’re both very intriguing, talented players, and Ohio State should be very happy to have them, even if they aren’t Robinson and Knighton, and Buckeye fans should feel the same way.