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Leaders of the Room: Will there be a go-to guy at running back for Ohio State this year?

Short answer: I don’t think so.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

Over the past few weeks, we have been running through the leaders of each position group for the Ohio State Buckeyes in our Leaders of the Room series, and so far, it’s been a fairly cut and dry endeavor. While there might have been a room or two that was a bit more difficult to determine than the others, for the most part, it’s been a pretty painless process. However, we’ve saved the most complicated for last, as now it’s time to venture into Tony Alford’s running back room.

With J.K. Dobbins’ departure for the NFL, the Ohio State running backs began the offseason as a group of young and injured guys with a whole lot to prove. While Master Teague III earned a Big Ten third-team honor during his red-shirt freshman year in 2019, he suffered an Achilles injury during the first workout of the pandemic-shortened spring practices. There is optimism that he could be ready to go for the fall season — whether it starts on time or not — but no one really knows for sure.

However, this video from Thursday includes a decent look of what appears to be a pretty darn healthy MT3, so perhaps he might actually be ready to go by the time a season theoretically kicks off:

As for another injured RB, after showing promise in his freshman campaign, Marcus Crowley tore his right ACL during OSU’s November win over Maryland. Again, Ryan Day’s staff is hopeful that Crowley will be healthy enough to return to action, but even with how modern medicine has sped up the healing process for ACL tears, there’s no guarantee when he will be back to form.

That leaves now-redshirt freshman Steele Chambers and criminally under-utilized, ninth-year senior Demario McCall from last year’s squad. Technically McCall might not be considered a running back anymore (I can’t keep up at this point), but these two should both be fully available if either wins a job in the rotation, or circumstances necessitate them stepping up.

Heading into the pandemic-created lockdown, that would have been the OSU running back room, but on March 22, Alford and Day welcomed a new back to the fold in former Oklahoma Sooner Trey Sermon. The graduate transfer comes to Columbus with one year of eligibility remaining, having already rushed for over 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in his career.

As a freshman and sophomore in 2017-18, Sermon was a major factor in the OU offense, wracking up 285 carries, 1,691 yards, and 18 TDs. But in 2019, he was relegated to a third running option as transfer-quarterback Jalen Hurts became the team’s leading rusher, and sophomore Kennedy Brooks went for his second straight thousand-yard season.

Then, in the Sooners’ Nov. 11 game against Iowa State, Sermon suffered a season-ending knee injury. Though the expectations are that he is already back to full strength, adding another back with a recent injury history to the crew could be a bit concerning.

So, now that we’ve established the whos of the running back room, let’s figure out the whats and whens. Unfortunately, I don’t see the Buckeyes having a distinct leader in this room; rather I expect Day to employ a RB-by-committee approach, especially if Teague is approaching 100 percent as the season progresses.

We still don’t really know what the Buckeyes’ schedule is going to look like, so I won’t put a definitive guess on actual yardage totals, but I see the season starting with Sermon getting about 50-60 percent of the carries, with the staff easing Teague into things, getting about 20-30, and then all other healthy backs splitting the final 20.

I’d say you see Sermon for most of the first quarter, but Teague gets the fourth series of the game. Then, as OSU you builds a lead, Sermon gets two series in the second quarter, before both being shut down sometime in the third.

As the season goes on, and Teague proves that he is able to shoulder the weight of increased carries, I think that we end up seeing him and Sermon meeting in the middle at about 40 percent each (give or take a few on either side), and everyone else taking the remaining 20 percent in clean-up duties.

Let’s face it, Ohio State isn’t likely to have a difference-making back in 2020 like fans have gotten used to in recent years with the likes of Dobbins and Ezekiel Elliott. However, with perhaps the best offensive line in the country, and more depth at QB, I do think that the backs could be effective, especially with an increased running threat from quarterback Justin Fields.

Having a viable option to pick up four to five yards per carry (even if they don’t have regular home run potential) might be enough to give Fields the opportunity to bust loose a time or two per drive. And, with the big-play potential on the outside, I really think that might be enough to render even the best defenses on OSU’s schedule helpless.

This year’s running back group will undoubtedly be one of transition, no matter how successful or productive they end up being. With the nation’s best back, TreVeyon Henderson, coming in January 2021 (after exploring reclassifying into this class), whomever ends up carrying the load for the Buckeyes will likely be a bridge to even brighter future.