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Column: Ohio State probably won’t have a thousand-rusher this year, and that’s okay

Next year might be a different story though.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For generations, the statistical mark used to define a successful season for a running back has been rushing for 1,000 yards. From Jim Otis becoming the first Buckeye to accomplish the feat in 1969 with a nice 1,027 yards to Eddie George’s then-program record 1,927 in 1995 to seven-straight years of Carlos Hyde, Ezekiel Elliott, Mike Weber, and J.K. Dobbins eclipsing the mark, this accomplishment has been used to separate the good from the great.

However, as we are just 18 days away from the start of Ohio State’s 2020 season, we can already say that it is pretty unlikely that an OSU RB will rush for 1,000 yards this season. Obviously, the first factor working against their favor is that the B1G decreased the number of regular season games on the schedule from the traditional 12 to eight. Now, with the Champions Week game and a potential College Football Playoff run, the Buckeyes could play as many as 11 games this season, but even then, it is tough for me to imagine a back going for 1K, barring an injury that results in one runner getting the majority of the carries.

Don’t get me wrong though, if either Master Teague or Trey Sermon do rush for more than 90.91 yards per game over an 11-game season, I will be happy to submit my own article to @OldTakesExposed. But, beyond the reduced games, the biggest barrier between a Buckeye back and the revered mark is the fact that I’m not even sure which runner is most likely to get enough carries to reach 1,000 this year.

In a Zoom press conference today (which Gene went in depth on in today’s Buckeye Bits), Ohio State running back coach Tony Alford said that while Teague has done incredible work rehabbing from his spring Achilles injury, they are still working to up his reps. While he would certainly play if they had a game tomorrow, it’s clear that Teague — who, don’t forget, was a third-team all B1G selection last year — isn’t yet back full-strength.

Sermon is also coming off of his own injury, which ended his final season at Oklahoma last November. Though Sermon (who rushed for 947 yards in 2018 for the Sooners) said that he is 100% recovered from his knee injury, Alford admitted that they were still working to adjust his running style, since his tall, vertical strides might work in the Big 12 where playing defense is actually against the rules, the more physical B1G defenses will punish backs who run that way.

Alford also praised true-freshman Miyan Williams and redshirt-freshman Steele Chambers who are likely to get garbage-time carries, especially until Marcus Crowley is fully recovered from his own knee injury.

So, we’ve got fewer games and a crowded, RB1-less backfield working against a Buckeye back from going for 1,000 yards. Then there’s also the guy who will be handing the ball off to them, Justin Fields, screwing things up for the backs’ quest for 1,000.

Ryan Day was very hesitant to allow their stud signal-caller to run the ball in his first season as the OSU QB, because there was little to no depth behind Fields. While they are pretty young and inexperienced, there is now more, competent depth in the QB room in C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller.

Therefore, it seems likely that Day and his offensive braintrust will explore more of the athletic options that Fields brings to the... well, field. This is likely to hurt the running backs’ raw numbers in two ways; with a stable of insanely talented receivers, Fields is going to have a lot of options to throw to while being protected by arguably the best offensive line in the country. More throws equals fewer carries.

Then, it also means that Fields is probably going to keep the ball on more designed runs than he did last year. In 2019, Ohio State running backs accounted for 35.57 rushes per game, while Fields threw the ball 25.29 times per contest. While I expect the backs to have plenty of blowout carries in second halves this season, it seems likely that Fields will be putting the ball in the air more than he did last year. If I had to guess, I would assume it is closer to the 30-35 times per game range; I could also imagine a situation in which Day calls his name six to eight times on designed keepers, not including scrambles or sacks.

So, let’s add in more throws and more runs for Fields to our growing list of fewer games and multiple backs and it’s looking likely that this will be the first season since 2012 that doesn’t see an Ohio State RB hit 1,000 yards (and yes, Braxton Miller did go for 1,271 yards that season, but he wasn’t a running back, so he doesn’t count in this discussion).

But you know what? Who cares? It doesn’t really matter. Having a cavalcade of options is a good thing for an offense. Sure, the backfield being anchored by someone like Dobbins is always a massive advantage, but with a Heisman-finalist QB like Fields, it’s not necessary.

If Teague and Sermon both end up in the 65-85 yards per game range, with other backs getting 25-40 yards a piece in mop-up duty, that will be more than enough to balance out the Buckeye offense all season. There is plenty of firepower on the OSU offensive to sustain a championship run even without all-world back toting the rock.

But, not to look too far into the future, the question will be whether having a top-line tailback will work in 2021 after Fields, Sermon, and potentially Teague have moved on. With either Stroud or Miller likely entering their first season as a starter next fall, will a running-back-by-committee be OSU’s only option or will someone — perhaps incoming, five-star freshman TreVeyon Henderson — step up to be the the latest bell-cow in a long legacy of OSU backs?

I don’t know, but with the talent accumulated on their roster, chances are that the Buckeyes can win either way.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!